Staff Writer Seb Brooks previews the upcoming Test series between two cricketing giants, Australia and India.
Two titans of the cricketing world meet in the purest format of the game once again as Australia host India in a four-Test series later this month. When these two meet, it always produces a great contest. India will be looking to build on the success that they had in Australia during their last tour Down Under two years ago. They won a thriller in the opening Adelaide test, and bounced back brilliantly from defeat in Perth to comprehensively outplay Australia in Melbourne and Sydney. The final result was a 2-1 series victory, but had the rain held in the last test they were on course for an even greater winning margin. Yet, with that said, circumstances are slightly different this time around.
For one, in the last series Steve Smith and David Warner were still out with bans for the infamous Cape Town ball tampering scandal in 2018. With a huge hole in Australia’s batting line-up, they were bound to struggle. On solid batting pitches, the scores from the last series do not make for good reading, as they failed to even make over 350 once: 235, 291, 326, 243, 151, 261 and 300. Meanwhile, led by Cheteshwar Pujara, India easily outperformed the Australians with the bat. Reminiscent of Rahul Dravid, rightly known as ‘the wall’ and a previous India number three, Pujara faced over one thousand deliveries in the four matches, scoring 521 runs and three centuries, therefore being a fundamental pillar of India’s success.
India was facing an under-strength Australian side, but you can only beat what is put in front of you. Tactics were spot on in the respective conditions, and especially in the last two Tests: pile runs on with the bat and build pressure with the ball. Pujara will have to be on form again this time round if India are to have any chance of winning. Most significantly, Kohli is on paternity leave following the first Test and the world’s premier batsman will be badly missed for the Indians. Rahane will captain in his absence but he has had some issues with the bat as of late, and Pujara therefore will need to be a rock again at three for India to have some hope. Other batsmen have also shown in the tour matches that they could be up for the fight against a good Australian bowling attack. Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant both recently made centuries as part of a total score of 386/4 declared in just 90 overs in the final tour game against ‘Australia A’. It is clear that whoever India picks in the batting department will need to contribute as much as they can, since big totals in Australia are key to success, as shown in the 2010-11 Ashes. Then, England passed 500 four times in the series, helping to secure a first triumph Down Under in 24 years.
With the ball, Jasprit Bumrah has shown consistently over the last few years now that he can lead India’s bowling attack. His capability of bowling at speeds of up to 95mph is also valuable in Australian conditions, given that the pitches tend to support ‘genuine’ fast bowlers. Added to this, Bumrah has had experience of playing in Australia. On the last tour, he was India’s leading wicket taker with 21 scalps, tied with Nathan Lyon, the other leading wicket taker for the series. He was solid throughout, and most notably took nine wickets in the Melbourne Test, as India stormed to victory by 137 runs. Also, although spin is not as valuable in Australia as in India, Jadeja showed on the last tour that he can be a threat, especially in the fourth innings. Ashwin, Shami, and both Umesh and Kuldeep Yadav are also proven Test match bowlers. It is therefore reasonable to expect India to be capable of taking twenty wickets in any match, even on good batting pitches.
However, this will be tough against a formidable Australian top order. The four of Warner, Burns, Labuschagne, and Smith were fundamental to Australia completing whitewashes of Pakistan and then New Zealand at home last winter. Against Pakistan, they helped to put up 580 in Brisbane and 589/3 declared at Adelaide, where Warner broke many records with a magnificent knock of 335 not out, and at once looked like he was going to surpass Brian Lara’s record of 400 as the highest test score ever. New Zealand’s bowlers suffered a similar fate, as these batsmen contributed to scores of 416 in Perth, 467 in Melbourne and 454 in Sydney. Labuschagne especially had one of the best summers in the history of Australian cricket, crowning it off with a magnificent double ton in Sydney, and looks like an outstanding number three. The ICC rightly gave him the ‘Emerging Player of the Year’ award; and he averages an impressive 63.43 across 14 tests. And, as England fans know well, Steve Smith is a nightmare for any opposition captain, and in home conditions, is formidable. Combined with a potentially in-form Warner and Labuschagne, it could be tough going for India in the field.
The Australians also have strength in depth in the bowling department. Nathan Lyon now has nearly taken 400 Test wickets, a remarkable achievement. Fast bowling options are also aplenty: Cummins, Hazlewood, Pattinson and Starc. All are capable of taking wickets at any stage, and Starc especially as a left-armer brings variety to this attack. This attack has been successful for a few years now, and managed to bowl out Pakistan and New Zealand twice in every match last winter. In combination with a batting line-up piling on the runs, and especially if Lyon can bowl in the fourth innings, this Australia unit is a well oiled machine. They are currently top of the world Test rankings, and how threatening they are at home was shown by the demolition of a New Zealand side currently ranked second.
All in all, everything in this series means that it is set up to be a cracker. The first Test, as in most cases, will be crucial. Warner will be out, and Kohli will be around, but with that said, it is a Day-Night game and Australia boast a proud record with the pink ball in Adelaide, having never lost in one yet. If India can avoid defeat here, then it will be a great confidence booster going into the next three games, even without Kohli. Yet, with that said, my prediction is 2-1 to Australia. Kohli’s absence swings it to the hosts in my opinion, making it an even harder task for India than it already is. Australia are powerful at home, and in India’s last series victory they played some great cricket, yes, but with Warner, Labuschagne and Smith all firing now it will be different.
The significance of this series is also increased by the value of World Test Championship points. Despite the ICC deciding that the finalists will be determined by percentage of points gained instead of actual points due to the impact of the pandemic, there is still all to play for. Australia currently sit on top with 0.822 PCT and India in second with 0.750 PCT. With another 120 points up for grabs, if India win this series they could potentially get closer to Australia in top spot. Meanwhile, if Australia win convincingly then they are almost guaranteed to book a place in the much-awaited final at Lord’s next year. Given what these points would mean, this series thus has even more importance. Combined with the fact that both sides are full of match winners, it should be a great series.