Ringside view: Upcoming series with Australia is Virat Kohli & CO’s best chance to prove their overseas abilities

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New Delhi | Updated: November 25, 2018 4:03:44 AM

India have never won a Test series in Australia and the upcoming series is arguably their best chance

Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli during the team?s Australia tour pre-departure press conference at the BCCI headquarters in Mumbai earlier this month  (PTI photo)

T20s are fun games. So Harbhajan Singh, please hold your fire and don’t get too upset with Yuzvendra Chahal’s exclusion from the Indian starting XI. By the way, the fact that Krunal Pandya is playing for India and Jalaj Saxena isn’t even in the India A team serves an oddity. But the current national selection committee has 13 Tests between its five members. Never mind that they prefer the IPL over the Ranji Trophy, when it comes to the Indian team selection.

After the starters—the T20 internationals—India will play a proper four-day first-class game against Cricket Australia XI before the four-match Test series. The first Test in Adelaide starts from December 6. A few months ago, in July, India had made a mockery of the tour match against Essex in England. They went on to lose the five-Test series 4-1. It’s heartening that the team management has learnt from their mistakes.

The indomitable Ravi Shastri, India’s head coach, has already spoken about learning from the mistakes during his first press conference in Australia. And Shastri looked pretty baffled that people call his team ‘poor travellers’. “You have got to learn from your mistakes. When you go overseas and when you look at teams that travel around now, there aren’t too many sides (that travel well).

“Australia did for some time in the ‘90s and during the turn of the century. South Africa did it for a while and, other than these two, in the last five-six years, you tell me which team has travelled well. Why pick on India?”

Fair point. India have played eight overseas Tests this year, losing six and winning two. England have just completed a Test series victory in Sri Lanka. New Zealand have started off their three-Test series against Pakistan with a win at Abu Dhabi, and Zimbabwe rolled over Bangladesh in a Test at Sylhet. Shastri can throw up whatever logic he wants. He can repeat the ‘scorelines didn’t tell the true story in South Africa and England’ excuse. But the fact of the matter is that India have won two overseas Tests this year and Zimbabwe have won one.

Over to Australia now and, without David Warner and Steve Smith, this is arguably the weakest batting line-up in the history of Australian cricket. They have returned from a winless series against Pakistan in the UAE. As for the Indian batting, for so long now, it’s Virat Kohli and the rest. India hardly put 300 runs on the board in away Tests. Let’s see if the young Prithvi Shaw and his positivity upfront can create a trickle-down effect. The way the Mumbai kid batted in the home series against West Indies, he should be one of the first names on the team sheet. Reverting to the Murali Vijay and KL Rahul combination would be a negative approach. Kohli needs to mother-hen Shaw the way Sourav Ganguly threw his weight behind Virender Sehwag during the early phase of the latter’s career.

Australia have an excellent fast-bowling attack comprising Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Peter Siddle. India can respond with Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav. The two fast-bowling units are likely to cancel each other. Which takes us to the spinners… In Nathan Lyon, the Aussies have arguably the best off-spinner in the world at the moment. Lyon keeps it simple, bowls conventional off-spin and doesn’t try too many variations. His Indian counterpart, R Ashwin, on the other hand, has many tricks up his sleeve—top-spinner, carrom ball and even leg-break. So rarely does he depend on his stock ball—off-break.

The Southampton Test in England in August was a case in point. Ashwin, caught in his experimentation quagmire, had failed to use the rough outside the right hander’s off stump. Moeen Ali, a glorified part-time offie, returned with nine wickets from the match, including a five-for in the first innings, by bowling conventional off-breaks and pitching it on the rough. In Australia, India are likely to go with one specialist spinner and Ravindra Jadeja should be the man to start with, as he offers stability and consistency. With Jadeja in the team, the lower-order batting, too, will have a little more solidity.

India have never won a Test series in Australia and this is arguably their best chance. Then again, in 1977-78, when Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket had left the Aussies field a third-string side, India lost the series 3-2. A 41-year-old Bob Simpson had to be hauled out of retirement to lead the hosts. Jeff Thomson, coming back from a serious right collarbone injury, had been Australia’s tenuous link to Test class.

In the 1985-86 tour also, with Australia going through transition and still smarting over the retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh, a far superior Indian team had failed to win a Test, as the three-match series ended in a stalemate.

Shastri has the past examples to fall back on if things don’t go his side’s way this time, tongue firmly in cheek.

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