Virat Kohli doesn’t differentiate between opponents. He brings the same level of commitment and energy to the field against Bangladesh as he would against England. To him, as he has said multiple times, it is an honour to represent India.
But even then, there are some opponents that just bring the best out of a player. Subconsciously, one doesn’t have to try as hard to get into top gear. And for Kohli that opponent will always be Australia.
He will never have to search for context when he faces this team. He has admired the manner in which they have played their cricket over the years and there are parts of his game which so often seem tailored on the Australian cricket handbook. Which is why he seemed to be doubly delighted when he led India to their first-ever Test series win against Australia Down Under.
Australia were without their two best batsmen — David Warner and Steve Smith — due to a ban and that is why many cricket fans (including BCCI president Sourav Ganguly) still wonder whether India would have won if the duo was playing. If that isn’t enough to get Kohli’s juices flowing, then there is the small matter to Australia winning the ODI series when they were last here in March 2019.
India won the first two matches at Hyderabad and Nagpur but Australia came back to win three in a row — starting with a win at Ranchi, followed by Mohali and Delhi. Teams don’t beat India in India very often but Aaron Finch’s team have found ways to be very competitive and this time, they are a team in form and much stronger than they previously were.
To beat the big teams in ODI cricket, the true differentiator is not the odd big innings but the ability to do the same things well again and again. No disrespect to Bangladesh or the West Indies, but they just don’t have the consistency that Australia bring to the table
The odd blast might do the trick in T20 cricket but ODIs still demand that little bit more. And that is where Australia are solid. They will do the basics well — they will field well and their pace attack had some serious quality to it. The batting, of late, has been in splendid touch and Indian grounds aren’t as alien to them as they once were.
Finch and Warner know Indian conditions well and their partnership can be devastating. The key for them will be to get past Jasprit Bumrah. If they can do that, there is relatively little to fear in this Indian attack.
They are followed by the in-form Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith in the middle while Alex Carey can be dangerous at the death.
Mitchell Starc, with his remodelled action, and Pat Cummins are going to be good regardless of the conditions and they will spearhead the challenge of facing the Australian bowling attack.
For India, if Kohli wants to check how well Bumrah is doing or whether Shikhar Dhawan is truly back in form, there can be no better opponents than Australia. KL Rahul’s renaissance can also be judged against a team that won’t let him have things his way.
Similarly, Kuldeep Yadav’s iffy form also runs into an opponent that will try to mentally intimidate him. To keep things simple, performances against Australia matter. The players know that, as do the selectors.
It also will be a chance for the young and upcoming Indian players to prove their recent performances haven’t been a flash in the pan.
As good as Navdeep Saini has been of late, one wonders whether he will have the same impact against cricketers who have been brought up on a diet of pace and bounce. His variations have been good, but will he be able to bring them out against Australia?
Will Shardul Thakur’s all-round potential get another fillip? It won’t be as easy against Starc, Cummins and Co but if he can pull it off, it will give his T20 World Cup chances a huge boost.
At the other end of the spectrum will be Rishabh Pant, who will get another chance at redemption. While Kohli has been supportive of the young wicketkeeper at the moment, failures against Australia might see the team management lean towards KL Rahul as a wicket-keeper batsman for the T20 World Cup.
All in all, there is a lot to play for against an opponent that hopefully won’t flatter to deceive.