New-look Australia seeks to dent solid India

Australia’s young team under Steve Smith may play three spinners for the first Test on a likely spinning track at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune.

Virat Kohli (right) and Anil Kumble at a training session in Pune ahead of the first Test. Kohli has scored a double-century in each of the previous four Test series.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

Touring India has never been cakewalk for Australia. The tour’s importance for the young entourage under Steve Smith can be gauged by Australia’s decision to attend a camp in Dubai to ensure thorough preparation for the rough challenge. How geared up they are to dismantle the No.1-ranked Test side will be found out when the teams take the field here on Thursday for the first of the four Tests.

Australia finds itself in a bit of rut in the subcontinent, having lost eight consecutive Tests. Smith said his team will need to start afresh. “We have to start with a positive mindset. The guys have prepared well for the series. Let’s hope we can play well and execute our plans.”

The Indian team looks almost invincible at home. It has registered comprehensive wins over New Zealand, England, and Bangladesh this season and is on a 19-match unbeaten streak under captain Virat Kohli, who oozed confidence ahead of the first Test here. “Every series is a challenging series, but yes, we come into the series with a different mindspace as compared to the previous ones.”

Key players for Australia with the bat will be Smith and David Warner, especially to tackle the spin threat posed by Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, the wily match-winners. Smith may even move up to No. 3 from his preferred position of four to ensure Ashwin doesn’t bowl at three left-handers arriving one after the other. “It will depend on the team combination but there is a good chance that I will bat at three if we have top three left-handers (Warner, Matt Renshaw and Shaun Marsh).”

Alongside Smith and Warner, Marsh is among the most experienced players in the team. He has a good record in the subcontinent and this series may well be crucial for him to ensure he gets a long run. Renshaw and Handscomb have shown promise but their success with the bat cannot be guaranteed as it is their first tour of India.

Starc the potential x-factor

Australia doesn’t have the spinners of the same calibre as India, but fast bowler Mitchell Starc may provide the much needed x-factor and may hold the key if the team hopes to trouble the Indian batting line-up. Kohli, too, recognised Starc as one of the big threats. “He is an outstanding bowler and his reverse swing is amazing to see. Ever since the last Test series (against India in 2014), he has certainly taken his game to the next level and I respect his skills.”

Top-order batsmen Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, besides Kohli, have all been in good form leading into this contest. Kohli especially has had a hot run, having scored at least one double hundred in each of the last four series. Also, what makes Kohli the biggest batting threat for Australia is that he always tends to save his best for Australia; he averages a whooping 60.76 against it.

Smith has said Australia may play three spinners after his assessment of the pitch, meaning seamer Josh Hazlewood could be dropped. This means rookie Mitchell Swepson, who is a rather unknown quantity, may be thrown into the deep end, or left-arm spinner Ashton Agar may find himself in the line-up. Kohli expects a typical Pune surface. “It looks like a dry surface with a bit of grass to hold it together. The wickets are expected to be dry as we approach summers. I expect it to be a slow and low surface, and it might turn from day two or day three.”

Australia will need to set the tone right from the first game to gain some confidence going into the rest of the matches.

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Key stats

# India’s last defeat at home was in December 2012, against England in Kolkata. Since then, India has played 20 Tests on the home soil, winning 17 and drawing three.

# Australia has lost nine consecutive Test matches in Asia before the series.

# The last time Australia won a Test match in India was in 2004. It also won the four-match Test series then.

# The Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium at Gahunje, on the outskirts of Pune, will become the 25th Test venue in India.

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Teams (from):

India: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandaran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund, Hardik Pandya.

Australia: Steve Smith (c), David Warner, Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Stephen O’Keefe, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade.