After a sporting lull due to the relentless global march of the coronavirus pandemic, Indian cricket is slowly finding its feet. The recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL) in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, turned out to be a punchy starter. The kind that lingers, tickles the palate and enhances the craving for a full-course meal which now awaits the Men in Blue Down Under.
Virat Kohli’s men have effortlessly shifted from one bio-bubble to another as they flew from the United Arab Emirates to Australia. If in the desert sands they were scattered among the eight IPL teams, they will be finally together in the southern hemisphere. It seems as if the wheel has indeed come a full circle as the last time India played as a unit, it was in Australia’s Trans-Tasman neighbourhood — New Zealand.
That tour concluded on March 2 and soon the world grappled with a virus that snuffed lives, weakened economies and forced mankind to stay home. It was the forced slow-life that triggered cabin-fever. Cut to the present as India settles into a summer of cricket under the southern skies from November 27, first-up is a set of three ODIs and three Twenty20s before coloured clothing is discarded and the whites are laundered and worn for a four-Test series.
If in the distant past, a tour of the West Indies was supposed to identify the men from the boys, over the last three decades, a sojourn in Australia was the proven filter to appraise a cricketer’s skill. The Aussies can chew on nails, launch a war on the green turf and at the end of it all, plaster a smile and quaff some frothy stuff in tall glasses. And unlike when India last toured Australia in 2018-19, this time the host is at full-strength.
In Aaron Finch’s squad, Steve Smith and David Warner are back in the fray while the memories of their ball-tampering tryst seems like a bad dream. Add to it Marnus Labuschagne, Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Starc, and Australia remains a tough opponent.
Meanwhile, India has no Rohit Sharma within its fold for the limited overs contests. The Mumbaikar has a hamstring strain and though it didn’t scuttle his progress in the IPL where he led Mumbai Indians to title glory, the injury harks back to a previous one and the selectors are in no mood to aggravate old wounds. Rohit would be back for the Tests but he will be sorely missed in the ODIs and T20s.
Despite his phenomenal talent, Rohit the Test player is still a work in progress but in the game’s abridged versions, he is an absolute legend. Rohit’s absence means that the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, the newly-elevated vice-captain K. L. Rahul and Mayank Agarwal have to step up and perform while Kohli stays omnipresent. Players like Shreyas Iyer, Shubman Gill and Manish Pandey get an opportunity to press their case while India builds again towards the 2023 World Cup, which it would host.
Sprung into the captaincy sweepstakes, Rahul has to don the wicketkeeping gloves in ODIs while Sanju Samson will stand behind the stumps in the T20s. India will no longer have M. S. Dhoni’s services as he took the Instagram route to announce his retirement. The quest for his successor is on in right earnest. Dhoni offered immense balance and in his void, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja can reveal if they can be dangerous floaters with the bat while also turning their arm over.
Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami will lend pace and venom with the white ball but eyes will also be peeled for Navdeep Saini and left-armer T. Natarajan. Besides Jadeja, the spin quotient notably has Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and Washington Sundar. Yet, Kohli and Bumrah will be the primary force multipliers and the others are expected to fulfil their assigned roles. The subsequent Tests would be a different experience especially with Kohli leaving after the first Test due to his paternity leave but for now, India has these limited-overs’ games to deal with.
Australia can prove to be an unnerving opposition but India has its share of splendid remembrances, especially coach Ravi Shastri. In 1985, he was named the ‘Champion of Champions’ while India under Sunil Gavaskar won the World Championship of Cricket in Melbourne after hoodwinking Pakistan in the final. Shastri got an Audi too and he can surely recall those champagne-memories while the outfit assembles in socially distanced hotel meeting rooms.
In the post-Dhoni era, this current tour is India’s first step and it better be firm and emphatic! A vaccine against COVID-19 is in the works and while hope floats in these dreary times, there is nothing quite like the charm of watching cricket beamed live from those vast grounds in Australia.
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