As India and Australia get ready to lock horns once again, it is indubitable that a Test series between the two giants is one of the most exciting chapters in the annals of cricketing lore. When the two sides begin the battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Nagpur, arguably the biggest rivalry in world cricket will unfold in a 4-match Test series where the touring Aussies and the Indians are likely to be tested to their limits.
There’s plenty at stake for both teams and if Team India manages to win the series 2-1 or with a better margin, they will virtually seal a spot to meet the Aussies again in the World Test Championship final. If they clinch the series, India also will be the top ranked side across all formats which is a huge feat itself. For Australia, it’s a series their star player and former skipper Steven Smith has termed crucial and added that if they win, it will be “bigger than an Ashes series (win).”
The sobering fact for Australia and a grim reality that stares them ahead of the series is that they have won a series in the country only once in the last 54 years. It was the win under Adam Gilchrist’s captaincy in 2004. In fact, Aussies have won just 1 Test match in their last 4 tours of India. No wonder most Aussies now regard a win in India as their ‘final frontier’.
Both sides are evenly matched and are coming off great seasons since their disappointments in the T20 World Cup in Australia last year. The Aussies have come for this litmus test of their test-playing skills after an undefeated summer. With four wins out of five Tests this summer, as well as recent tours of the subcontinent under their belt.
India too is on a roll in the past few months. But much of their focus has been on White ball cricket. While Rohit and Virat are both in good touch, an added bonus for India is the efflorescence of Shubhman Gill who has been in sparkling form in recent months and lends an added dimension to India’s batting riches. Another move that many fans are looking forward to is the introduction of Suryakumar Yadav in Test Cricket. As the series may well be decided on who plays spinners better, experts feel Surya in the middle order can be a game changer.
A few injuries, however, have altered some of India’s initial plans for the team combination. Shreyas Iyer, having been in remarkable form of late, is not yet certain to play the first Test in Nagpur. With Rishabh Pant recovering from his freak accident, the place for a keeper in the side is up for grabs too. Cricket pundits feel that while K.L.Rahul can do the job, it might be too big an ask of him, especially since he is a key element in the batting department. Luckily, in Ishan Kishan India have an effective replacement for Pant, both as keeper and aggressive, left-handed batter.
Meanwhile, Australia is going through injury concerns of their own. Cameron Green, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood will miss the first test. The Aussies have a powerful batting line up with great depth. Their recent success in Pakistan was on the back of some heavy scoring by Usman Khwaja and Steve Smith. However, veteran David Warner is in patchy form and has a rather modest Test record in India. Also, Khawaja, Alex Carey, Travis Head and Marcus Labuschagne will face a far sterner spinning test than what they battled in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
But a slew of left handers in the top order will have Ashwin licking his lips. If most experts are to be believed pitches for the series are likely to be dry, spin-friendly tracks with uneven bounce, something that Ashwin will look forward to. The wily off-spin wizard had created history in 2021 by becoming the first bowler to take 200 wickets of left-handers. Ashwin is likely to be one of the toughest tests for the Aussies and the entire series could well hinge on how well the Aussies tackle Ashwin.
India’s spin contingent poses quite a stern test overall. There are reports that Kuldeep Yadav, who has been bowling with a lot of guile in recent months, may also be in the playing XI as India could start the series with 3 frontline spinners. In such a scenario, it is a toss-up between Yadav and Axar Patel since a fit Ravindra Jadeja will surely figure in the playing 11 and could be a potent threat to the Aussies.
In contrast, a spate of injuries to the finest pacers on both sides – Bumrah, Starc, Green, Hazelwood – have blunted the pace threats for the moment. But if India produce rank turners through the series, Nathan Lyon would be a major factor in the series. Indian batters have not been very good in playing spin for the past many years as was recently highlighted by the dramatic collapse in the second Test against Bangladesh.
Moreover, Lyon has also been very effective against Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. Both the Indian batters have scored prolifically against him in Australia but on Indian pitches, story is far different. Lyon has dismissed Kohli 4 and Pujara 5 times respectively and he is also just behind the Aussie legend Shane Warne for most wickets in Asia by a non-Asian spinner. He has 34 wickets in India from 7 Tests and his economy rate has been getting better with every tour.
The Aussies will look to partner Lyon with one of Ashton Agar, Todd Murphy and Mitchell Swepson. But what strengthens the Aussie spin attack are the additional options of part-time spinners like Travis Head and occasional leg spinners Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. While many fans may care about who scores more runs between Kohli and Smith, the series may well be decided by who picks up more wickets between Ashwin and Lyon!