Every time India plays Australia in a Test series, be it at home or away, one can expect a cracking contest. They’re two of the most powerful cricketing nations in the world and have enough depth, as India showed the last time they went Down Under, to fight till the very end.
Ahead of the latest edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, though, there is added incentive with the ICC World Test Championship final on the horizon. At the moment, Australia and India occupy the top two spots in the standings but it is the former who is in a strong position to reach that final, which will be played at The Oval in June.
As far as India is concerned, they will need to defeat Australia by a margin of at least two to three wins, depending on how Sri Lanka and South Africa fare in their upcoming series against New Zealand and West Indies respectively. A 3-1 or better result will be enough for India to book their place in back-to-back finals of the WTC.
However, coming back to the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the four-Test series between India and Australia, set to begin in Nagpur on Thursday, is undoubtedly a main event in itself. Both countries have a rich cricketing history and have produced some memorable battles over the years.
Australia are set to be without the services of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Cameron Green in the first Test but their determination to start the series on a strong note remains high. As skipper Pat Cummins said, winning a Test series in India is right up there with the toughest challenges in the sport and the Aussies will have a point to prove.
For India, home conditions make them the favourites heading into the series but they do have concerns of their own. This is likely to be the most difficult assignment for Rohit Sharma since he took over as full-time captain of the Test team, and ahead of the Nagpur game, he and coach Rahul Dravid have some tricky decisions to make as far as the playing XI is concerned.
First things first, it cannot be overstated how significant Rishabh Pant’s absence is for India. The keeper-batter’s white-ball journey may not have been as steady in the past few years but there’s no denying his value in the red-ball format. He was one of the key architects in India’s historic triumph in the 2020-’21 series Down Under and he’s arguably the best keeper-batter in Test cricket at the moment.
Pant being sidelined due to his unfortunate accident has led to Ishan Kishan and Srikar Bharat being the two options for the wicketkeeper’s role. While Kishan has shown how devastating he can be with the bat, having scored an ODI double-century recently, it is Bharat who could get the nod for the first Test based on the fact he has been second choice behind Pant ever since India moved on from Wriddhiman Saha.
It is often said that players who perform consistently in domestic cricket aren’t given their due. Perhaps now is the ideal time for someone like Bharat – who has played first class cricket for a decade, has a healthy batting average of 37.95 and is safe with the gloves – to be handed his Test debut.
Then there are the other two batting slots to figure out. Rohit, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli will take No 1, 3 and 4 respectively in the batting order. Shreyas Iyer would’ve taken the No 5 spot, having performed consistently in home Tests, but he is set to miss at least the first Test due to a back injury. This leaves KL Rahul, Shubman Gill and Suryakumar Yadav as the options for No 2 and 5 respectively.
Gill has had a dream start to 2023 and scored runs in heaps in white-ball cricket. He made a crucial contribution in the epic Gabba win too and it makes sense to persist with him at the top of the order. But Rahul has more experience and his opening partnership with Rohit in England a couple of years ago was truly world class. Which is why it seems Gill could be slotted in the middle order. The young right-hander is touted as the heir to Kohli and perhaps now is the right time to start grooming him for that all-important No 4 spot.
Suryakumar, however, holds immense game-changing potential too. The 32-year-old has plenty of experience of playing first class cricket and like Gill, he is in the form of his life at the moment. With Pant absent, Suryakumar could be the one to provide that much-needed burst of acceleration in the middle order, which can be crucial on Indian pitches.
“They bring different things to the table for us,” said skipper Rohit in the pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
“Gill we all know has been in supreme form in last three to four months. Lot of big hundreds as well. Surya has shown in T20s what he is capable of and what sort of game he can bring to Test cricket as well. Both are quality options for us and we haven’t yet decided who will play among the two guys, keep in mind all aspects of the game.”
A lot of the talk heading into the series has been about the pitches that will be on offer. While former Australia wicketkeeper Ian Healy believes only “unfair” pitches can stop the visitors from winning, there are those like former India captain and coach Ravi Shastri who want the ball to turn from day one.
It is impossible to say exactly what kind of pitches will show up at Nagpur, Delhi, Dharamshala and Ahmedabad but what is certain is the ball will indeed turn considerably throughout the series. That has always been the nature of Indian pitches and as the likes of Australia, England and South Africa have shown in the past, it is hardly unfair if the home team prepares surfaces that suit its strength.
As far as India’s spin combination is concerned, R Ashwin should be the first choice. With Australia having a number of left-handers in their squad, the seasoned off-spinner could play a key role as he usually does.
Then there are the three left-arm spinners to fill in the other two slots – two left-arm finger spinners in Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, and one left-arm wrist spinner in Kuldeep Yadav.
Jadeja hasn’t played international cricket for a long time due to his injury issues but now that he is back, having played a Ranji Trophy game to prove his fitness, it seems unlikely that he will be left out. The 34-year-old is a proven performer with the ball on Indian pitches, provides the option of a proper batter in the middle order, and is arguably the best fielder in the squad.
This leaves Axar and Kuldeep jostling for the third spinner’s spot. There has been a marked improvement in Kuldeep’s bowling over the past year, he has gained confidence by picking wickets consistently, and he provides versatility in the bowling department with his wrist spin.
But it will be hard for the Indian team management to look away from Axar for the first Test. Like Jadeja, he adds value with the bat and in the field but more importantly, he has a superb record so far with 47 wickets in eight Tests (six at home and two in Bangladesh). Axar can provide stability from his end and his devastating arm ball could be a major weapon like it was a couple of years ago against England.
“All four are quality and Jadeja and Ashwin have played a lot together,” said Rohit. “Speaking of Axar and Kuldeep, I think whenever they have gotten an opportunity, they have put batters under pressure.”
“The last series we played against England, Axar got a lot of wickets (27 wickets), and Kuldeep when he played against Bangladesh, he got five wickets there. To have all four available is a great sign and three of them are quality all-rounders, Kuldeep also scored crucial runs for us in Bangladesh, those who can do multiple things for us gives us great options and gives us depth. So all four available is a positive sign.”
As is usually the case, a strong start to the series is critical for a visiting team in India. A heavy, demoralising defeat can be hard to recover from and Australia will be wary of this fact. In David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Nathan Lyon and Cummins, they have plenty of class in their squad and will be determined to perform well in Nagpur.
But India remain the favourites, there is no denying that. They haven’t lost a Test series at home in 11 years, nor have they lost a home Test series to Australia since 2004. Rohit and Co have enough experience in their squad and quality right through their lineup. The prospect of retaining the coveted Border-Gavaskar Trophy and securing a spot in the WTC final will provide the motivation they need.
India: Rohit Sharma (c), Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Srikar Bharat (w), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Ishan Kishan (w), Shreyas Iyer, Kuldeep Yadav, Suryakumar Yadav, Jaydev Unadkat, Umesh Yadav.
Australia: David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Alex Carey (w), Pat Cummins (c), Nathan Lyon, Scott Boland, Todd Murphy, Mitchell Swepson, Peter Handscomb, Ashton Agar, Mitchell Starc, Matt Renshaw, Cameron Green, Lance Morris.
Ind vs Aus Test series schedule
|9th – 13th February
|17th – 21st February
|1st – 5th March
|9th – 13th March