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WHEN Australia ruled the cricket world, the land Down Under was considered a breeding ground for future champions. If you looked at the senior Australia team—loaded with the Pontings, Warnes and Gilchrists—with grudging admiration, you also cringed with apprehension at their next in-line. For, at any given point, an Australia A team could boast of names like Brad Hodge, Michael Hussey or Stuart Clark. Names that would have strode into any other national team at the time, if only they weren’t Australian.
Despite their crushing defeat of England at Lord’s earlier this week, Michael Clarke’s Aussie Posse are still quite a way from regaining their nation’s erstwhile indomitable aura on the cricket field.
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And somehow, the Usman Khawaja-led Australia A team that landed in Chennai—and will play the first of two four-day unofficial Tests at Chepauk from Wednesday—doesn’t really instill the awe of yore either. But that doesn’t mean their team is bereft of high quality.
If anything, in Khawaja, Matthew Wade, Ashton Agar and Joe Burns, they have a bunch that not too long back was donning the Baggy Green, and could easily have still been part of the present Ashes party.
Despite the significance that they hold for those directly involved in them, ‘A’ tours generally end up as mere sideshows, only coming to the fore in case of a highly stellar or singular individual performance. But what adds credence to the high-billing for the Australia A tour this time around is the presence of a number of Test regulars and the creme de la creme of Indian cricket’s reserve bench in the opposition.
If the visitors are led by an elegant and diligent No.3, who has batted in most of his Tests at that position; his equally elegant and diligent counterpart, Cheteshwar Pujara, always seemed destined to be the Indian Test team’s No.3, once the man who will coach the India A outfit, Rahul Dravid, hung up his boots. And while these two four-day matches are being looked at as Pujara’s opportunity to redeem himself after a string of low scores, which led to him being dropped in Bangladesh, Khawaja too has his sights set on regaining lost ground as far as regaining his Test spot is concerned.
In addition to Pujara, the squad also includes KL Rahul, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojha and Varun Aaron, who will miss the first game with viral fever.
In a way, you almost expect the depth in Indian and Australian cricket to be immense and replenishable, considering the robust structures that exist in both countries. Not to forget the equal focus that is rendered to all formats. In spite of possessing the nearly-eternal County Championship, England Lions teams have rarely matched up in terms of bench-strength, maybe because of the ECB’s penchant to send them as shadow teams to wherever the senior team is on tour rather than use these tours to fortify their reservoir like Australia are.
Take Khawaja. The first Pakistan-born cricketer to represent Australia, was slated to be the left-handed replacement for former captain Ricky Ponting. But with just two half-centuries in 9 Tests he hardly lived up to that hype, and Steve Smith’s record-breaking run at No.3 has only made the Australia A skipper’s job that much tougher. Khawaja incidentally had played in three Tests during Australia’s 3-0 drubbing in England two years ago with nothing to show for it. A serious knee injury has pushed back Khawaja’s career even further but he’s confident of making up for lost time.
“I have been training pretty hard and doing everything every cricketer do. I know Pujara did have a ACL (Anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction but he had come back and scored a lot of runs,” said Khawaja.
The baby-faced Agar was on that 2013 Ashes tour as well. And he won hearts and plaudits, for his rearguard 98 on debut and then faded away with ball in hand. On wickets that the Australians will expect to turn, this will be his chance to move towards shaking off the one-hit-wonder tag.
With Brad Haddin himself fighting to regain his spot in the XI, the door might seem to be ajar for Wade to reignite his fractured Test career, even if for now Peter Nevill might have leapfrogged him to get the wicket-keeping gloves.
Wade incidentally played the last of his 12 Tests during the forgettable 4-0 drubbing that the Aussies received in India two years ago. Joe Burns made quite an impression in the two Tests he played against India during the Australian summer, and he will be looking forward to restart his battle with Yadav—who dismissed him cheaply in his debut innings— on his first tour to the subcontinent.
Burns and Rahul had both started their Test careers in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. While the Karnataka opener already has a ton to his name, runs for India A against a strong bowling attack will keep him in the running to open for India again, maybe as soon as next month in Sri Lanka. Not to forget reminisce with Burns about their simultaneous beginnings on the big stage.
“You got to experience conditions like this. It is a great learning experience for some of the young players in our team. But we are ready to go,” said Wade, putting the tour in perspective.
And even if the two weeks in Chennai will not see a contest with quite the edge of most India-Australia cricket battles in the subcontinent, it’s sure to be competitive, if not, the cynosure of the cricket calendar over the next couple of weeks.