Having won all three Tests against Pakistan (making it 4 Test wins in a row) for many observers the demoralizing series loss to South Africa suddenly seems to have occurred a long time ago and attention now turns to the upcoming tour of India, the hardest of tours for Australians over the last 40 years.
What should we be looking to get out of this series? While naturally we would like to be holding the trophy at the end of proceedings, is that a realistic aim considering the difficulty of the tour and the relative inexperience of the players set to tour?
Would we be better off hoping that we win one Test or should we be just aiming to draw one, so as to avoid the embarrassment of a white washed series? Or is it the attitude of our players that is the most important? Can we be satisfied that we are on the right path, even if we lose every Test, if the players involved show some grit and determination? Would it be enough if there is a visible effort from the batsmen to value their wicket, even though wickets would still be lost?
Enjoyment from a series like this greatly depends upon your expectations going into it, and for me what I really want to see is a good honest contest. I know it’s going to be a tough slog and I don’t think we will be able to win the series but if I see an improvement of the application we saw in Sri Lanka I’ll be somewhat appeased.
In contrast India had 4 batsmen who averaged over 50 for the series plus another (Dhawan) who only played in one Test but made 187. Jadeja & Ashwin took 53 wickets between them at an average under 20 and it was no surprise that India won the series 4 – 0 as we were never in the hunt.
That’s not to say that it can’t be done. The last time we beat India in India it was a tight tussle, and while the conditions over there always favour the spin bowlers it was our quicker men that did the damage. Jason Gillespie took 20 wickets on his own, Glenn McGrath snagged 14 and Michael Kasprowicz chimed in with 9. Only Sehwag passed 100 for India and he was 1 of only 2 Indian batsmen to pass 50 twice for the series.
Australia on this occasion batted with a great deal of control and concentration. Clarke topped the averages with 57.14 but it was Damien Martyn with 2 100s & 2 50s who would not be denied. He soaked up 882 deliveries for his 444 Runs, occupying the crease and frustrating the Indian spinners who were still incredibly effective. Kartik (12), Harbhajan (21) & Kumble (27) took 60 wickets between them and all averaged under 25 with the ball but they lacked support from their batting counterparts.
Recent events including England’s tour of India would suggest that India’s batting will not be an issue this time around. For Australia to compete we will need to occupy the crease more than ever before but still score heavily early in the contest. Looking at our squad I see three players who stand out as being the ones I feel can get the job done. Firstly Steve Smith, who hopefully will have learned from his disastrous second day dismissal in the first Test in Sri Lanka and will double down on his intent to value his wicket. He’s shown, with his unorthodox ways, that he is more often than not in control of himself and the situation at hand. His current batting average of more than 60 is truly remarkable and speaks of a player who is incredibly difficult to bowl to.
The second player who I feel can (and must if we are to succeed) have a very positive impact on our tour is Josh Hazlewood. While I was rather underwhelmed by his lack of effectiveness in the last tour of England his summer in Australia has really impressed me. His control of the ball enables him to bowl long, tight, frustrating spells that really test a batsman’s will power and concentration. His wicket tally was impressive but it was his method and consistency which I found to be the most pleasing.
The next player I have high hopes for in India hasn’t put a foot wrong since his debut. Currently averaging just a tick under 100 with the bat and a renowned player of spin bowling, Peter Handscomb looks to be well placed to be a very solid contributor on this tour. No one should expect him to dominate or keep his average up where it is, but if he can notch a 100 in foreign conditions and contribute a few 50s as well Australia will certainly be well placed to compete with India’s home town strength.
I’m also worried about a few Australian players coming in to this tour. The first of these is Usman Khawaja. A stylish left hander with time up his sleeve in Australian conditions, Khawaja was found well short of the required level on the recent tour of Sri Lanka. He looked at a loss in regards to playing the spinning ball and failed to adapt to the different conditions. Having him batting at number 3 could prove to be a vital weakness in our line up considering that we will most likely have a 20 year old opening the batting on his first international tour alongside another player who hasn’t exactly thrived in India on previous tours.
David Warner’s stats from the last time we lost to India are sadly pretty meek. He batted 8 times, passed 50 twice, had a top score of 71 and averaged under 25. With his last 24 months seeing truckloads of runs come his way in both the ODI and Test format, we may hold hope that he has grown and is ready to take on the challenge he failed to meet previously. Frankly I’m worried we may get a repeat of his previous efforts rather than a continuation of his recent mighty form.
The two next worrisome players need to act in concert if we are to win, but I don’t think they will be able to form a successful double act. Nathan Lyon managed 15 wickets during the ill-fated 2012/13 tour. Each wicket cost him 37 runs and he was leaking 4.4 runs per over. His spot in the team was under jeopardy multiple times throughout the 2016/17 summer yet he remained composed and determined and produced just enough at just the right times to stay in. While it’s true that most spinners traditionally struggle to dominate in Australia, Lyon’s work has been pretty good. Will he be able to overcome the strengths of Indian batsmen used to playing in their home conditions? I doubt he’ll string too many good overs together but it’s of vital importance that when he does create a chance that he’s backed up by those in the field. This brings us to Matthew Wade.
He’s a plucky, combative, aggressively mannered wicket keeper whose best Test moments were making hard runs when they were truly required. With two Test 100s to his name, Wade has shown that he CAN play at the level required with the bat. Unfortunately, his glove work, particularly in regards to keeping to the spinners, leaves a bit to be desired. As such, considering that a bulk of the work he will be doing in India will be up to the stumps, I worry that if the first chance he gets from a spinner is fluffed then it will be a long and unhappy tour for the current skipper of Victoria.
There’s also a bit of a question as to what to do with the number six spot in our batting order. The selectors have been very keen on having an all-rounder slot into the batting order at number six as it adds flexibility to our bowling. It has not been an overly successful ploy in recent years as the players given a chance have all failed to really come to terms with the position. Two of those tried before find themselves in the mix again, but I wonder if we would be better served picking a pure batsman to hopefully capitalise on the work of the top 5.
Having seen through previous tours the vital importance of having players making big scores is it wise to choose a player who excels at neither discipline? It probably depends on a few factors, but if we assume that Khawaja will be selected to bat at 3 in the first Test then the options for the number 6 position are Mitch Marsh, Shaun Marsh & Glenn Maxwell. Of these, Shaun Marsh should probably get the nod if you don’t want to go for an all-rounder and if you do want the extra option with the ball the decision becomes spin or pace?
Two players in the squad have what is commonly known as X factor. Mitch Starc could, if he bowls at his best, rip India’s top order apart with the new ball. He’s also prone to bowling long periods of pretty innocuous junk but retains the ability to impact the contest in a very short space of time. If he fires on all cylinders, the world is his oyster and we have a huge opportunity to truly compete.
The second player who truly could impact the series in a multiple of unpredictable ways is Glenn Maxwell. A previous wearer of the baggy green cap Maxwell didn't exactly shine but has since shown his versatility by winning the award for Australian one day player of the year in the season where we won the world cup. While his state level first class stats from this season aren’t impressive, he does however retain the ability to dominate a game and change the pace of an innings. While his fielding is genuinely world class, his off-spin could most kindly be referred to as useful. It is in his batting where his true value lies. Good enough just playing regular cricket shots, Maxwell is an inventive and destructive player. If he could master Ponting’s method of “swimming between the flags” the sky would be the limit.
There’s a lot to look forward to and the trick to not being too disappointed if/when we lose is to set the right expectations. If this side can truly compete but falls short, then I’ll be pretty happy heading into an Ashes campaign that will also test our capabilities. But that’s a story for another day.
Squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), 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