Searing pace, wicked bounce await India

India’s stand-in captain for the first Test,Virat Kohli, has a splendid advisor in India’s Director of Cricket, Ravi Shastri.-VIVEK BENDRE

Australia is the favourite, but there should be opportunities for India in the series. Will the visitor seize those moments, asks S. Dinakar.

The ruthless Steve Waugh often spoke about destroying the opposition “physically and psychologically.” Although Waugh’s men failed to conquer ‘Final Frontier India’ in 2001, they very much dominated world cricket during the period leaving behind mental scars and bruised limbs.

Australia’s legendary pace predator Glenn McGrath told Sportstar during his visit to India earlier this year, “Waugh wanted to crush opponents from the first ball of the game.”

The current Australian team under Michael Clarke can be vulnerable on surfaces of the sub-continental kind, but is a force down under as hapless England found out last season against the ‘Unchangables.’ Such was its dominance in a series sweep that the Aussie XI remained the same over five Tests.

The Australians were indeed brutal in their annihilation of Alastair Cook’s side with intimidation being at the heart of their strategy. With the lifting deliveries threatening to break bones, there can be no place to hide in the cricketing arena.

When the mercurial Mitchell Johnson thunders in to unleash his thunderbolts in the first Test at the ’Gabba, he will be directing much of his deliveries on the ribs, shoulder, or the helmet of the men facing him. Would a young Indian batting line-up stand up to this searing test of technique and courage?

In Ravi Shastri, the side’s Director of Cricket, India has someone who comprehends the mind games the Aussies indulge in. The battle-hardened Mumbaikar’s presence will be reassuring to the Indian cricketers in what should be a demanding campaign.

The psychological warfare has already begun. McGrath has predicted a 4-0 rout of the Indians. Shastri’s response was: “It is his (McGrath’s) opinion.” In other words, he implied his team would not be disturbed by what is said off the field.

The Indians would be without skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni — recovering from a thumb injury — in the series opener in Brisbane. The pressure will be on stand-in captain Virat Kohli as his team counters the Aussie aggression in the crucial first Test that could set the tone for the series.

Despite his return to form in the ODIs, Kohli will be seeking runs in the Tests following a disastrous series in England. In Old Blighty, Kohli’s footwork and balance while coping with deliveries in the corridor came under intense scrutiny.

It was in Australia during the 2011-12 Test series that Kohli established his Test career with some gutsy batting even as some bigger names faded away. An Indian team sans batting giants needs runs and inspiration from him this time round. Decisive play on or around the off-stump can turn things around for Kohli.

Among the key confrontations in the series would be Kohli facing off against Johnson. Sparks could fly.

In Australia, the movement in the air will be significantly less, but the batsmen would have to deal with bounce and seam movement on hard tracks. Back-foot play and horizontal bat shots are vital attributes in these conditions.

The top-order’s role in preventing early inroads from the Aussie quicks will be critical to India’s fortunes. Opener Murali Vijay was impressive for most part in England, but the same cannot be said of his left-handed partner Shikhar Dhawan who has issues with his back swing.

Chesteshwar Pujara should surface at No. 3. Pujara was short of runs in both New Zealand and England. He should back his inherent strengths — technique and patience — and not attempt to push things. In England, some of his dismissals were self-inflicted.

India has an exciting young opener on the tour. K. L. Rahul caught attention in the domestic circuit with his innings building skills and cultured strokeplay. If provided an opportunity, he could grow in stature.

Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina are short of experience in Australian conditions. The compact Rahane is the one to watch out for in this pack; he uses the depth of the crease and has a sense of timing. The Indian middle-order will have to withstand some serious pounding from the Aussie quicks.

It would be interesting if India actually picks wicket-keeper batsman Naman Ojha — he would return to India once Dhoni joins the team ahead of the second Test in Adelaide — in the XI at the ’Gabba.

Ojha would bolster the side’s batting — he notched up three hundreds in two ‘Tests’ against Australia ‘A’ down under last season — but then Wriddhiman Saha is a handy batsman and a fine ’keeper. The two tour games ahead of the first Test might determine the XI.

With Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Mohammed Shami around, India will not be short of pace. Yet, how much firepower the attack has will depend on the areas that they bowl.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar is slower, but his two-way movement could provide India valuable breakthroughs with the new ball; the Kookaburra ball swings in the early overs, but hardly reverses later.

The pace attack also needs a leader; someone around whom the bowling revolves. Ishant will have to don that role.

The pacemen will be desperately seeking support from the slip cordon. Edges often fly thick and fast in Australia.

Off-spinners have had success against the Australian batsmen down under, but then Ravichandran Ashwin will need to exorcise the ghosts of the 2011-12 series. If he gets his body alignment and line right there could be some bounce for him to exploit. Ashwin’s composure and strokes down the order do lend depth to the line-up.

Despite the presence of left-arm spinning all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, leg-spinner Karn Sharma might have a greater chance of causing some damage with his accuracy, googlies and bounce. Wrist spinners can turn games in Australia.

Except, perhaps, in Sydney, India is unlikely to play two spinners in the XI. The absence of a genuine pace bowling all-rounder limits the side’s options in campaigns such as these.

Australia’s strength is its pace attack where Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris could have a major say in the series. Harris is making a comeback from a knee injury; this committed paceman can do so much off the track that he invariably strikes at important stages of an innings. And Siddle’s speed, fuller length and late movement can result in edges or disarranged stumps.

The host’s biggest concern would be the fitness of its influential captain Michael Clarke. He is recovering from a hamstring pull and might not play the first Test even if named in the squad.

This is an injury that has recurred in Clarke’s career and Australia would tread carefully given his significance both as a major middle-order batsman and an attacking captain.

The Aussie batting has a few chinks. Opener Chris Rogers has suffered a form slump of sorts and the side does not have a settled No. 3. Alex Doolan failed in both South Africa and UAE and the selectors — they earlier wanted Shane Watson to bat down the order — might be forced to bring the all-rounder back to the top-order.

And if Clarke’s injury flares up again, there will be a hole in the middle-order. This said, in David Warner, Watson, Steve Smith and wicket-keeper batsman Brad Haddin, Australia has the kind of batsmen who can quickly take the game away from India if the attack fails to bowl in combinations. Maintaining pressure from both ends will be the key.

Australia is the favourite, but there should be opportunities for India in the series. Will the visitor seize those moments?