Great expectations

Both the off-spinners, Harbhajan and Ashwin, may play given the southpaw orientation to the Aussie batting.-K.R. DEEPAK

Peter Siddle and company would do well to remember that spinner-friendly pitches are the new mantra for India. True, England foxed the Indians with its spin force, but thanks to skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the curators have a job on hand, to help him with pitches that would dent the firepower of the Australian fast bowlers. Vijay Lokapally takes stock.

The market forces would like us to believe that the India-Australia series is The Series in world cricket as Michael Clarke brings his team to the land of cricket in modern times. India is the most sought after team in international cricket for various reasons and Australia is the most celebrated for purely cricketing argument.

But the Australians reckon the Ashes as the mother of all battles. In India, every series at home is projected as the biggest. Matches against Pakistan have a historic lure to them but in terms of intensity the contests against Australia continue to stand out.

The Clarke-led squad is certainly not the strongest ever to tour India. From the 1959 team that included Neil Harvey, Richie Benaud, Wally Grout, Ray Lindwall and Alan Davidson to the Bill Lawry-led 1969 team with stars like Ian Chappell, Doug Walters, Ian Redpath, Paul Sheahan, Keith Stackpole and Graham McKenzie, Australia has often come heavily equipped.

Arguably the best combination to have toured India was in 2000-01 when Steve Waugh attempted to conquer the final frontier with players like Mark Waugh, Justin Langer, Michael Slater, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. It turned out to be one of the most fiercely fought cricket series in history with India prevailing 2-1. That series is regarded as the benchmark for high octane Test cricket. Even the 1998 team under Mark Taylor provided good cricket with India winning the series 2-1.

Australia had won an exciting series in 1969 and dominated in 2004 when Ponting’s team won the four-match challenge convincingly, the margin of victories in Bangalore (217 runs) and Nagpur (342 runs) telling the story. India won a low-scoring Test in Mumbai by 13 runs but Clarke would love to remember that experience for his astonishing spell of 6.2-0-9-6.

It is obvious that Clarke is confronted with a stiff challenge. He leads an inexperienced side in which all-rounders Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell are yet to play a Test. Australia, however, believes its strength lies in fast bowling with bowlers like Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Jackson Bird, Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc expected to deliver. Siddle was convinced that Australia had the capability to emulate the performances of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz, who shaped the triumph in 2004.

As Siddle observed, “The best way of attacking India is with whatever your best line-up is. The way we’ve won Test matches for years now has been with our pace and I think that is going to play a big role. But Nathan [Lyon] is going to play a big role at the other end, and his game is going to flourish even more with the pressure we build at our end. Combined, we’ll do well and definitely be able to take 20 wickets. We’re strong, we’ve got a good set of quicks going over and we’ve got good back-up for Nathan over there with spin. In India the games go a little bit slower because the wickets are hard to score on so it’s about patience, setting the right fields with your captain and bowling to your fields. Our side is disciplined enough now to go about it in that way.”

But Siddle and company would do well to remember that spinner-friendly pitches are the new mantra for India. True, England foxed the Indians with its spin force where Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar left the home team in a trance in the recent series, but thanks to skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the curators have a job on hand, to help him with pitches that would dent the firepower of the Australian fast bowlers.

The Australian fielding coach summed it up well, “The teams are going to play a lot of competitive cricket. We will have to learn to adapt to these (pitches) very quickly. It is a little bit different in India and it is just about how we deal with the Indian conditions. Fortunately, a lot of our guys have been playing in the IPL (Indian Premier League) and the knowledge they have about the wickets and conditions here this time of the year is absolutely wonderful. I always say that while you have got five very good bowlers who bowl at 140 to 145 an hour and on occasions 150, on variable bouncing wickets, they are as good as the spinners.”

The ‘left’ factor also stands out so starkly in the Australian camp. It has five left-handed batsmen and three left-arm bowlers. India will clearly have to tackle this menace as traditionally it has struggled against the left-handers. The inclusion of off-spinner Harbhajan Singh along with R. Ashwin is an indication of India’s plans. It is prepared to play them together with Ravindra Jadeja as the likely left-arm spinner because of his ability to bat better than Pragyan Ojha.

The nature of the pitches has influenced the tactical approach of the Indian team. One can expect the home team to play three spinners and just one fast bowler if need be. The National selectors have given importance to current form and performances by picking left-handed opener Shikhar Dhawan and young seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar. They may get to play a part in the series but the selectors also want these two in the scheme of things for the year-end tour of South Africa.

The Australian vulnerability against swing paved the way for Bhuvneshwar joining the ranks of Ishant Sharma and Ashok Dinda, who essentially hit the deck. Ishant should spearhead the attack, but Bhuvneshwar can prove an ideal partner to the Delhi fast bowler with his skilful stuff.

The Indian selectors have picked the best possible combination even as Suresh Raina mulls a comeback to the Test team. It is not the end of the road for Gautam Gambhir because the continuity factor enabled opener Murali Vijay to retain his place in the squad. Gambhir paid the penalty for repeated failures and shall have none to blame.

Virender Sehwag will hold the key since a good start is the compelling need of this team where Cheteshwar Pujara and Sachin Tendulkar have distinct roles to play. Batting will be India’s strength and one can look forward to some exciting cricket in the four Test matches between two immensely motivated combinations.