India host Australia in a highly-anticipated four-Test series starting on Thursday in Nagpur.
Australia have struggled to overcome conditions in India, with their last series win there coming in 2004, while their opponents have claimed the past three encounters, including twice down under.
The visitors are reeling from a spate of injuries – including to key pace-bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood – while the hosts are at near-full strength.
Ravindra Jadeja has returned from injury to spearhead the spin department alongside Ravichandran Ashwin while star batter Virat Kohli is back in imperious form.
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Here’s a look at three key battles that could decide who comes out on top in a clash between the world’s top two cricket teams:
Kohli vs Cummins
Virat Kohli has triumphed over his extended lean patch from last year and his match-up with fast bowler Pat Cummins, the Australia skipper, could light up the series.
The batting maestro has hit four tons since breaking his 1,020-day century drought at last year’s T20 Asia Cup, but hasn’t been able to bring his white-ball form into Tests.
An exemplary leader, Cummins has on the other hand been in the best Test form of his career, claiming 29 wickets in nine Tests over the past 12 months.
Cummins has got Kohli out five times in Tests, but the home-hero will be looking to hit back in his backyard.
“I am really looking forward to seeing Kohli versus Cummins. That’s a fantastic match-up,” former Aussie quick Jason Gillespie was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times.
“When Virat comes out to bat, I would love to see Cummins take the ball and go at him straight away. That will be great theatre, two wonderful cricketers at the top of their game.”
Warner vs Siraj
Sparks are expected to fly when David Warner, an explosive left-handed opener, faces the seam and swing of rising star Mohammed Siraj.
Siraj, 28, got Warner out twice during his 2021 debut in Australia and went on to take 13 wickets in three matches.
He has since grown in stature to regularly lead India’s pace attack in the absence of the injured Jasprit Bumrah and has bagged 46 wickets in 15 Tests.
Warner has struggled on Indian pitches, with a batting average of 24.25 in eight Tests in the cricket-mad country. His overall Test average is over 46 across 101 matches.
Both men have something to prove in the coming series and Warner said last year that “winning in India is key”.
Khawaja vs Ashwin
Indian spinners at home are a challenge for any visiting batsman, but for Australia’s in-form opener Usman Khawaja, the task may well decide the fate of the series.
The Islamabad-born Khawaja handled spin with aplomb in Pakistan last year and led the tourists to a 1-0 series win with his 496 runs, including two centuries in three Tests.
The 36-year-old left-hander recently claimed his 4,000th Test run in a match against South Africa in Sydney, where he was 195 not out.
Khawaja is especially wary of Ravichandran Ashwin, who has enjoyed great success against left-handed batters, telling The Sydney Morning Herald: “Ashwin is a gun.
“He’s very skilful, he’s got a lot of tricky little variations, he uses the crease quite well too.”
“But it’s one of those really good challenges,” Khawaja added.
“The wicket’s going to turn here at some point, whether day one, day three or day four, and he’s going to be in the game and bowl a lot of overs.”
Jadeja vs Labuschagne
Jadeja’s prowess with the red ball at home needs no introduction. The left-arm spinner has a knack of picking wickets on India’s spin-friendly pitches and along with Ashwin, can test the best in the world on most days.
This time, though, Jadeja is likely to face stiff opposition in Marnus Labuschagne. This battle between the left-arm spinner and right-hand batter will be crucial as India aim to run through Australia’s middle order.
Labuschagne has been one of the most prolific run-scorers in Test cricket over the past few years. The 28-year-old has 10 Test centuries and 14 half-centuries to his name, at a brilliant average of 59.43, and has a major appetite for big knocks. If Jadeja can rattle him early in the series, India will undoubtedly be in a strong position.
Jadeja said he felt “blessed” after returning from his career-threatening knee injury.
“I am very excited and it feels really great that after more than five months, I am wearing an Indian jersey,” Jadeja told bcci.tv.
Inputs from AFP