Christmas and New Year’s Eve have traditionally triggered a special sporting feeling in the Australians. There is a sense of anticipation that builds up in the big cities as they prepare for festivities and sports. The buzz at the sporting venues like the Melbourne Cricket Ground feels almost tangible. It builds up to feverish levels on Boxing Day Tests. This year, though, has been a disappointment.
The West Indies team didn’t create much ripple of interest as they didn’t show much fight in the contests. Sample this: On the final day of the New Year’s Test at the SCG, only 5855 Sydney siders stumbled into the stadium. It’s the lowest attendance in the last 24 years. The Australians, like the rest of the world, have got used to the low-quality of the West Indies teams and that feeling of uninterest has resulted in lesser crowds during the 2-0 Tests triumph for the hosts.
It’s in this context that the Indians land up in Australia for five ODIs and three T20s. For all the criticism that the Indian Test side gets, the limited-overs team has always done well. They won the Champions Trophy in England and had a great run in the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, where they reached the semi-finals. They just didn’t stumble in there on luck but were the real performers in the tournament with their bowlers repeatedly bowling out the opposition. It was almost like the 1985 Benson & Hedges World Championship where the Indian bowlers led the way to a special triumph.
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The Australians prevailed in the semi-final and went on to win the World Cup last year, but 2015 was special for India too, though ironically in Tests. It was in Australia, before the Cup, that the Indians started to regroup and rally together as a unit, especially their bowling. After the World Cup, the team went to register Test series win in Sri Lanka before they walloped South Africa at home.
Though they failed to defeat Australians even once in the last series Down Under, India will run into a different team this time around. The absences of Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson, their two top pacers, and the experience of Michael Clarke and Shane Watson can have an impact. And the fact that David Warner will also be there for just two ODIs before he goes for paternity leave can only help the Indians’ cause.
However, as you would expect, Indian team has strengths and vulnerabilities that make this series a fascinating one to track.
Ishant on the rise, but…
After taking time to mature, Ishant Sharma finally seems to be there and thereabouts. Yes, one can still pick holes over consistency, and much else, but the fact remains that this is the best Ishant has been in his career. The experience gathered in the past, and the responsibility thrust on him as the leader of the pace attack, seems to be finally clicking. India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun believes that Ishant understands his strengths, is tactically more aware these days, and is mentally ready to lead the pace attack. Considering they have lost their best seamer of the World Cup, Mohammed Shami, Ishant will have to lead from the front.
It’s not going to be easy. Last time he played an ODI was a year ago, but in that rain-hit January 26th game against Australia, he didn’t get to bowl. One has to go back to November 2014 to trace the last time he bowled — a four-over spell against Sri Lanka.
Ashwin’s strong comeback
Ashwin has been the real bowling leader since the WC. It’s not as if he has had a great record outside subcontinent. In fact, he was dropped for a Test in Australia before the WC — a turning-point according to Arun. He slowly began to find himself, and his art, during the Tests that he played in and peaked in the big tournament. Later on, he started to shine and achieved results that made ICC choose him as the best bowler in the world.
It will be after quite a few years Dhoni will be having four newcomers in their 16 member squad. It will be interesting to see whether Dhoni will go with two spinning all-rounders in Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel or the untested Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan. In his first media interaction in Australia, when Dhoni was asked about possible combination, he said, “Most likely it will be three-two (quicks-spinners).” His rationale for that was interesting. “Because we don’t really have a seaming allrounder. Who are the players, we will wait and watch.”
It will be interesting to find out whether India manage to find a replacement for Suresh Raina. Will Manish Pandey be the man? Or will India give Gurkeerat the first go? It will also answer the long-standing confusion around the No. 6 spot in the Indian team. With his big-hitting on the wane, Dhoni has tried to come up the order, and take anchor of the chase, or setting up of a total, but India have often fallen short in finishing.
It raises other questions too. If Dhoni isn’t looking beyond the T20 World Cup, then is it better that India try someone else in that spot now to see how they fare? If Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane take up No .3 and No. 4, then we come down to the two spots below that. If No. 6 is the crucial missing piece, would it better to start trying someone out there now from this series? Or should India allow more breathing space to the youngsters, get them to taste some success at No. 5 spot, say, and then slowly ease them into the tougher one below? Dhoni, and for that matter Ravi Shastri’s task is cut out in coming up with an ideal way out of this lack of clarity.
Lead-up to World T20
The tour will set the pace for the T20 World Cup in India in March. India have picked up old names – Ashish Nehra, Yuvraj Singh, and Harbhajan Singh. It will be utmost importance to all the three that they perform in the T20s against Australia, for that will act as their selection test for the big tournament. If they fail, then India will have to fall back on domestic talent, and the ones who play in the ODI series in Australia.