Ahead of India’s history-making tour of Australia two years ago when they won the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, expectations were high. While India was at the time in the ascendancy, sitting atop the ICC Test rankings, the home team were nothing short of a shambles, with their two best batsmen missing through ball-tampering suspensions and the side coming off consecutive and convincing series losses to Pakistan and South Africa.
As this year’s series looms closer, however, it is the Australian team that is at the top of the rankings, boosted not only by the return of Messrs Smith and Warner but the rapid emergence of Marnus Labuschagne. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a vastly different series awaits, and the various battles within the war promise to form fascinating subplots.
The GOAT debate
This year’s Border-Gavaskar Trophy was supposed to pit Virat Kohli and Steve Smith against each other at the height of their powers; Kohli will be 36 in four years’ time and Smith 35, by which time their talents may be waning. Though a cricket match is played between 22 players, there is no understating the talismanic role that Kohli and Smith each serve for their sides and for their fans.
The two front-runners for the best batsmen in their generation, each has plenty to prove. Kohli will be hungry to demonstrate that he can come out on top against a full-strength Australian side, while Smith will be searching quite simply for redemption – and potentially the dangled carrot of an opportunity to once more lead his country again.
The Australian and Indian teams each possess the best pace attack in their own home conditions. The Australian pace battery of Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins is unchanged from the last edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, in which the Indian batsmen, led by veritable batting machine Cheteshwar Pujara, made merry, first blunting and then excoriating the Aussie quicks. The Indian bowlers, led by spearhead Jasprit Bumrah, were then left free to blow away the inexperienced and tired Australian batsmen.
With so many of the same suspects involved, it would be easy but misguided to expect the same outcome to unfold this time around. For one, Smith, Warner and Labuschagne are an entirely different prospect to Harris, Head and Handscomb, meaning more recovery time for the Australian attack.
Also of relevance is whether Bumrah remains as effective a bowler as he was before sustaining stress fractures in his back 12 months ago. In three one-day internationals against New Zealand in February, Bumrah conceded 167 runs and took no wickets, while his Test wickets in that tour came at a significant price. On flatter pitches in Australia, Bumrah will need to rediscover the form that saw him lead India to a historic series win in 2018.
The question of the keeper
Australian captain/keeper Tim Paine and electric Indian keeper Rishabh Pant may have become viral sensations for their banter behind the stumps, but it was Pant who had the last laugh on the field in the previous edition, with the explosive left-hander racking up a blistering 159* in the last Test at the SCG.
But Pant has suffered an underwhelming second half to his fledgling career, returning meagre numbers against the West Indies and New Zealand. With part-time keeper KL Rahul having strong-armed his way back into India’s squad, and India’s best keeper Wriddhiman Saha also named in the squad, Pant’s spot looks less secure than it did 12 months ago.
Leaving out Pant and relying on KL Rahul will allow Kohli to play an additional batsman; you can only expect that the Indian captain will already be licking his lips.
A day/night delight
The first Test of the series will be played as a day/night match at the Adelaide Oval, the first time the BCCI has agreed to play a day-night Test outside India. It promises to be a momentous occasion, one in which India are short odds blink first, given Australia’s formidable undefeated record in the seven day/night test matches it has played.
How quickly India adjusts to the vagaries of the pink Kookaburra ball at what has been a traditionally happy hunting ground, will go a long way to setting the tone for the series. It’s a challenge not only for the batsmen but for the captains too, given the strategic shifts that accompany day/night Tests.
Regardless of the outcome, watching the famed Indian batting line-up face a fiery spell from Starc and Co under lights against the magical blood-red Adelaide sunset is a sight for cricket-starved eyes; there’s no doubt that we have earned it this year.