You know the Australian cricket team is in town when the talk turns to sledging even before the first ball has been bowled. Except, it’s the year 2017, and it’s not the touring party who are firing the shots. To their credit, it’s not the Indian team either. After all, it’s much easier to unleash these salvos when you know you don’t have to back it up with performances on the field.
Sourav Ganguly led the attack: “It will be very difficult for Australia. As I said, I don’t predict in cricket, but I won’t be surprised if Australia lose 4-0.”
Harbhajan Singh, no stranger to getting under the skin of the Australians, went one step further. “In my opinion, looking at the composition, this is the weakest Australian side to tour India,” said Harbhajan. “This is a namesake Aussie side. Apart from Steve Smith and David Warner, I don’t even know any other cricketer.”
Fortunately for the Indian cricket team, they know not only the names of the rest of the Australian squad, they know their game as well. They know that Mitchell Starc has enough pace through the air to be a serious threat even if the pitches are not to his liking. They know that Josh Hazlewood has both the accuracy and the discipline to build pressure over extended periods. They know that Nathan Lyon, without doosras and mystery deliveries, is a highly skilled off-spinner who can take wickets on surfaces that do not offer extravagant spin.
There is little doubting that India start the series as overwhelming favourites, but this does not mean that Australia pose no threat. And this certainly does not mean that India only need to show up and go through the motions to win Test matches.
There are several things India must do, if they are to win. Firstly, blunt the threat of David Warner. When he is at the crease, the runs will flow, so attempting to tie him down is a fool’s errand. And, to expect him to be dismissed cheaply in eight innings is asking for too much; he’s much too good a player to let that happen. The question then is, what do India do when Warner is on the rampage? If India’s bowlers, quick or slow, can answer this, it will ensure that Australia do not get their noses ahead of the game early on.
India must also not make the mistake of believing that Steve Smith can make runs only on certain surfaces. He’s only played two Tests in India before, but managed scores of 92 and 46 in those games. Against India, back home in Australia, Smith has 769 runs from four Tests with four centuries and an average of 128.
The Steven Smith who will bat in India is a much-improved, more experienced cricketer than the one who toured in 2013. While it may be asking too much for him replicate his home stats on pitches more suited to India’s spinners, it was also be foolish to underestimate the man simply because India are playing at home. When Smith gets in the groove, he scores big in a series, and India have to ensure that he does not settle into any sort of batting rhythm.
India’s batsmen have their work cut out as well. Starc and Hazlewood have to do the power-lifting for Australia and both bowlers have plenty of experience under their belt. They will be rested going into the first Test, but the workload they have put in over the years will show and India must make sure this is further underscored in the start of the series.
To do so, India must not only keep Australia on the field for long periods but they must also attack Lyon judiciously to ensure that he cannot bowl long spells, thereby allowing the quick men to rest and return recharged.
India’s batsmen, in the past, have occasionally been guilty of treating opposition spinners with either excessive respect –getting bogged down to the point of allowing the bowler to get on top of them – or attacking with so little restraint that they have gifted wickets away. Lyon is good enough to exploit either of these approaches. India’s batsmen must curb their arrogance when it comes to playing Lyon, and back their skills to do the job.
It goes without saying that Australia’s fate is tied largely to how well they handle the ever-present threat of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Most of Australia’s batsmen are naturally attacking, and this will make Jadeja especially potent. Recently, Jadeja has worked on varying his pace without a change in action, and this will make attacking him a risky proposition at the best of times.
As for Ashwin, he is on top of his game, and has understood his craft to a degree that makes him a threat in all conditions, against all batsmen.
This Australian team may be the weakest to tour India, but they are certainly not weak. India may well win the series 4-0, but if they do, they will have played consistently excellent cricket. This Australian team may not be sledging away, but mistaking that for a sign of weakness or lack of fight will play right into their hands. Australia may not have the firepower needed to win this series, but India will have to make sure they do not defeat themselves by doing anything too cute.
(This article first appeared on The Scroll on February 22, 2017)