An Inevitable Trade-Off

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Australia has been a leading force in cricket over the past 3 decades. At home, they are close to unstoppable. A typical test series during the Australian summer begins during December with Australia dominating its opponent at the Gabba, winning the series at the Boxing day match at MCG, and completing the formalities at the dead rubber in Sydney. West Indies from the 80s and South Africa from the last decade might disagree but at least when it comes to Test cricket, not many visiting teams have faced consistent success there. Sri Lanka has never won a test match in Australia to date, let alone a series. The last time when Australia lost a test fixture at Gabba, Allan Border was their skipper. That was year 1989! Ever since Pink Ball tests were introduced in 2015, Australia has played 7 of them at their home and have won all of them.

Once again, it’s India’s turn to face Australia at the latter’s home in the upcoming Border-Gavaskar series. In 2018, India defeated Australia for the 1st time to win a series there. Despite the absence of their key batsmen, Australia had a solid bowling line-up and a “never give up” attitude. Except for the 0-2 away series loss against New Zealand earlier this year, India had bossed the World Test championship till now. However, a revision in the points table to account for the lost games due to COVID-19 meant that Australia now occupies the 1st spot followed by India. Safe to say this is a real challenge for India as defeats in this series could threaten their chances for a place in WTC finals.

To start with India must deal with seasoned opener David Warner, who averages close to 66 in Australia. The left-hander had a memorable home season last year by scoring 3 centuries, including a triple hundred against Pakistan in a Day/Night test. At No.3, we have Marnus Labuschagne who was a great find for Australia. Coming in as a concussion substitute for Steve Smith at Lord’s test, Marnus himself got hit by another bouncer from Jofra Archer. However, there was no looking back for the newcomer who went on to score 4 consecutive half-centuries in Australia’s pursuit to retain Ashes. Although Marnus has only played 23 innings, he averages 63 thanks to his incredible home run last year with 4 more centuries to his tally, including a double hundred. At number 4, we have Steve Smith, who is undoubtedly hailed as the number 1 test batsman at present. Smith has played 73 Tests and averages close to 63. Seven out of his 26 centuries in the longer format have come against India. There is no doubt that Smith loves this format and loves playing against the sub continent opponent. These three batsmen are currently in-form and even if one of them is well set, India might have a long day on the field.

Apart from these X-factor players, Australia is bringing in Sean Abbot, Will Pucovski & Cameron Green based on their strong domestic performance. Although Sheffield Shield is completely different from international cricket, these players provide batting depth and good balance. Australia is stacked up with a good fast bowling line up but pacer Sean Abbot can be expected to play due to his batting exploits. India doesn’t have good memories dealing with tail over the past few years and Abbot could be the tail-ender that India might find painful to deal with. Then we have Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc who can bat very well. During the 2018 series against India, Cummins, Starc, and Lyon almost tried to win the Adelaide test with their batting before Australia fell short by 31 runs. It could have reversed the fate of that series if the tail had pulled it off and at one stage it was a possibility. Safe to say this lineup can score more than 500 runs in an innings regularly.

Although the pace trio of Starc, Cummins, and Hazlewood have enjoyed a fair amount of success over the years, Australia seems to have bullied their opponents with batting performances. Scoring more than 500 runs and cheaply bowling out their opponents seem to be their norm. Most of their home victories are by a huge margin- either by innings or more than 200 runs. Even if an opponent scores a hundred, it ends up as a tough fight and the match rarely goes down as a cliffhanger.

Let’s consider the boxing day test in 2016 when Pakistan faced Australia. Batting first, Pakistan looked favorites by scoring 443, thanks to 205* from Azhar Ali. Pakistan was indeed unbeaten and declared after the fall of 9 wickets. After a wonderful batting display, the worst result that they could have expected is a Draw? Instead, they were handed an innings defeat with Australia replying with 624/8 (declare). That innings included centuries from Warner & Smith before Starc smashed 7 sixes for his cameo of 84. Pakistan couldn’t fight back with the same intensity and fell short by an innings and 18 runs. 

Despite these threats, India’s biggest advantage is its rejuvenated bowling attack. India was never considered a great bowling side, but the trend has changed over recent years. Ishant Sharma’s absence will be felt but India still has Bumrah, Shami, and Umesh. Even in India’s home tests, where the pitches were considered to favor spinners, the pace attack has dismissed their opponents without significant contributions from spin. Also, Indian bowling contingent of Shami, Umesh, Ashwin and Jadeja have experience playing in Australia with India touring there in 2014 and 2018. Umesh and Ashwin were also part of India’s forgettable 2011 tour. That’s plenty of experience in the bowling department.   

This could have been Ishant Sharma’s 5th tour to Australia if not for his injury

Often India’s batting comes under radar during overseas tours but it was lack of depth in bowling that costed the 2014 series in Australia. That series was memorable for Virat Kohli’s twin hundreds in Adelaide, Murali Vijay’s ton at Gabba, Kohli-Rahane 250+ run partnership in MCG, and KL Rahul’s hundred in Sydney. Indian batsmen did well despite a strong bowling attack of Johnson, Harris, Hazlewood, and Lyon. However, bowling was India’s Achilles heel. On all 4 tests, India played 7 batsmen and only 4 main bowlers – 3 pacers and 1 spinner. To make things worse, one of the pacers went for close to 6 runs per over. On the contrary, Australia played 4 pacers and a lead spinner, thanks to Shane Watson the all-rounder- a puzzle that India is yet to solve. India lost that series 0-2, despite crossing 400 four times. Once again, it was a case of Australia thumping its opponent by the bat.

Fast forward to India’s 2018 tour when they won 2-1. India still used only 4 main bowlers, but with an improved bowling attack, it was enough to answer the batting line up of Australia which lacked two of their match-winning batsmen. However, things have changed. Australia will be playing a full-strength squad this time. Also, India will miss the services of Rohit and Ishant, along with skipper Virat’s absence from 2nd test. The first game of the series in Adelaide is a pink ball match, in which Australia has a 100%-win record, while India has played only one pink ball test to date. With all these factors, Australia will surely start as favorites in the 2020-21 season.

In the upcoming series, India has the option to go for usual 7+4 combination but if the team ends up in a sticky 80/6 on a given day, the 7th batsman can hardly bail out the team. If he does, it must be nothing short of a miracle. Also there is a risk of playing only 4 bowlers against a batting line up that has 3 players who averages at least 60 in Australia and a tail that can stitch partnerships. It’s noteworthy to include Siraj as a 5th bowler in place of a batsman, along with a spinner and the existing pace trio of Bumrah, Shami, and Umesh. Now doing this will make India go one batsman short but the experienced bowling attack along with the unpredictability of debutant Siraj can put up a tough fight against the long Australian batting lineup. The 5th bowler can also back up for any bowler’s injury on-field or can give additional overs. Even if Ashwin, Umesh, and Shami combinedly manage to score a total of 35 runs, they can fill in as a proxy for the 7th batsman. History suggests they have the ability to do so. With India lacking a genuine all-rounder, it’s a trade-off worth considering. Surely, a great contest between India’s bowling and Australia’s batting is in store and the winner of this battle could seal the fate of this series.  

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