India will head straight into the lion’s den, as it were, on its return from the COVID-19 induced break from cricket. A full series against Australia, no less, is the first assignment that beckons India as it gets back into the rigours or grind of international cricket in December.
Having suffered a 2-1 series drubbing at the hands of India during the last tour, the first such win for the visitors in 71 years, the Australians would be licking their wounds knowing they have a score to settle with skipper Virat Kohli and his charges.
Also, unlike the last series, Australia will be at full strength with the talismanic Steve Smith and explosive David Warner returning to add more brawns and skill to the batting line-up and the fiery Michel Starc leading the pace pack along with Patrick Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson.
Add the spin and guile of Nathan Lyon to the mix and you have an attack that could put the best of batters through the grill.
Smith and Warner missed the last series as they were serving suspension in connection with the infamous ball-tampering incident against South Africa. Having them back would add the wealth of experience and Test match grit to the batting line-up, which also has the likes of Marnus Labuschagne, Aaron Finch and Mathew Wade.
Opening a cause of concern
So, how should India line up against, what would be a formidable Australian team?
The Indian middle-order pretty much selects itself, with Cheteshwar Pujara coming in at number three, captain Kohli at four, Ajinkya Rahane at five, Hanuma Vihari or Hardik Pandya at six and keeper Wriddhiman Saha or the dynamic Rishabh Pant at seven.
However, its the Indian opening that’s a cause of concern for both the captain and team management.
Since 2018, India have tried as a many as 8 players (KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Parthiv Patel, Prithvi Shaw, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari and Rohit Sharma) at the top of the innings in Tests.
On the last tour Down Under in 2018-19 India had tried 3 opening pairs in four matches- KL Rahul and Murali Vijay in the first two Tests, Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari in the third and Mayank and Rahul in the fourth.
In 2019, India tried Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal during the home season and both the batsmen gave Indian middle-order a good foundation to build on.
Moving on to the away series in New Zealand earlier this year, the Indian opening appeared out of sorts in the bouncing and swinging conditions in Kiwi land. Mayank Agarwal, who had scored around 600 runs in the home Test matches prior to the series, failed to replicate his home heroics and scored just 102 runs in the 4 innings.
In Rohit Sharma’s absence due to injury, India tried Prithvi Shaw. But Shaw too couldn’t make most of the opportunity, as he too struggled against the Kiwi bowling, scoring only 98 runs in 4 innings of the two Tests.
It has to be seen whether the Indian management shows confidence in Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal or gives opportunity to Prithiv Shaw and/or Shubhman Gill. But the case for Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal appear to be strong.
While the former, who made his Test debut back in 2013, has began to flourish as a Test opener, albeit in home conditions, latter was outstanding in his debut series Down Under in 2018-19, where he scored 197 runs in 3 innings of the last two matches.
Settled fast-bowling attack
There isn’t much debate around the bowling line-up, however, as India have a settled fast bowling attack in Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav.
The think-tank might also turn to Bhubaneshwar Kumar, should Kohli want him to extract more movement out of the surface. If Bhuvi comes in, Umesh would sit out.
As for slow bowling, the Indian think-tank is likely to go with either Ravindra Jadeja or Ravichandran Ashwin.
In the recent past, the Indians have preferred to go with Jadeja as he is a handy lower-order batter, who can up the tempo or weigh anchor depending on the match situation. Another area where he outscores Ashwin is fielding.
The only way Ashwin can get a look-in is if the pitch affords a hint of turn and bounce.
However, with the Baggy Greens likely to have their pitches tailored in accordance with their strength, which is pace, producing a spinning track is simply out of the question. So, expect Ashwin to be a journeyman on this tour.
For the keeper’s slot, the Indians will have a choice to make between the explosive Pant or Wriddhi, who is easily more accomplished behind the stumps.
Cricketing logic would favour the latter, as he is arguably the best stumper in contemporary cricket and is a safe bet behind the wickets. Pant is prone to lurch between the sublime and the ridiculous with the willow and could also be untidy with his collections.
What’s guaranteed, however, is that the Indians will leave shore with a strong squad and will put their best foot forward to win the series. And, as coach Ravi Shastri often put it during his commentary days, there will be no half measures.