Australia will be the last stop in a year-long coming-of-age phase for young India in the post-Big Four era. A period that started with a narrow loss in South Africa, followed by a winless run in New Zealand and ended with despair in England. The verdict you can say, with one round to go, is that the boys still seem stuck in puberty, yet to become men. They’ve been good in patches, impressive on occasions but overall have failed to blossom as a team away from home. And the tour Down Under will in many ways be the ultimate leap of faith.
In these times when no team barring South Africa compete well away from home, can one be really harsh on a young team if they lose in a land where no other Indian outfit has tasted success before? But if they were to produce another spate of debilitating three-day affairs it will be a reflection of where they stand and what the immediate future looks- murky and grim.
When India left for Johannesburg just over 12 months back, they had done so on the back of an emotionally draining Sachin Tendulkar farewell series and with a sense of trepidation. Their tussle against the Proteas in their backyard was to be their first without the security blanket that the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman had provided for close to 15 years. As it turned out, the two Tests in South Africa would prove that Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara at least were cut out to fill up the massive holes left in the middle-order. And by the end of that tour, despite the 0-1 scoreline, young India seemed headed in the right direction.
But both Kohli and Pujara have only regressed ever since, the former dramatically so after his shocking string of low scores in England. And with less than two weeks to go for India’s departure to Adelaide, the trepidation is ominously back.
The optimist will point out that where Kohli and Pujara failed, Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane stepped up and looked like they belonged with centuries in England. To boot, their captain MS Dhoni had his best away tour with the bat in his career. And are we really saying that Kohli and Pujara can’t overcome their recent woes?
Generations of touring Indian teams have struggled as much against the swing of England as they have while contending with the extra pace and bounce of the southern hemisphere. But Kohli and Pujara looked more adept at tackling the bounce of Morne Morkel than the lateral movement of James Anderson. A fiery Mitchell Johnson will be a handful on any Australian track of course but the slowing down of the pitches there could play into the Indians’ hands, considering that the Kookuburra doesn’t offer swing for as long as the English Duke’s.
If Vijay can hold off the new-ball for as long and competently as he did in England, he could abet the cause for Kohli, who was the sole Indian batsman to finish the last tour to Australia with his chin up, and Pujara. Not to forget Rahane, who is the only member of the present line-up to have got runs consistently through the last year, and the enigmatic Rohit Sharma who started his career with a bang in Australia seven years ago.
When India tour, the focus is as much on how their batsmen will fare against the opposition pace attack as it is on their own pacers. And over the next two months as India play Tests in Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, Dhoni-once he takes over from Kohli for the second match-will have five pacers, each as good or bad as the next to pick from. As he sits to put together a combination, he’ll have at his disposal the similarly erratic pace of Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav along with the seam and swing of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. In addition to the experience of Ishant Sharma that is.
Kumar is the patented swing bowler in the mix, the one from whom the captain knows what he’ll get. The conditions in Australia should actually encourage the rest, who depend heavily on hitting the deck and extracting bounce and seam off it. Whereas they had to learn new skills (of swing) and adapt to unnatural lengths in England and New Zealand, Yadav, Aaron and Shami can stick to their natural strengths.
The two months in Australia will be a sort of finishing school for Kohli & Co, one where they might complete their boys-to-men transformation or get bullied and scarred for a while to come.