This time Australia are full strength, while India will be without their captain Virat Kohli for three Tests
In a marquee series, the limited-overs matches serve as starters, while Tests are the main course. India and Australia are cricket’s two superpowers. The four-Test series that will follow three ODIs and three T20 internationals, is humongous.
In 2018-19, India had won their first-ever Test series in Australia. It was a stupendous effort, notwithstanding the fact that the Aussies sans David Warner and Steve Smith were depleted. Warner and Smith were serving their ban following the Sandpapergate and without them the Australian batting line-up was bereft of any world-class presence.
This time, Australia are full strength, while India will be without their captain Virat Kohli for three Tests. Kohli has been granted a paternity leave and will return home after the first Test in Adelaide, bestowing captaincy to Ajinkya Rahane for the next three matches. His absence could leave a gaping hole in the Indian middle-order. In 2018-19, Kohli had scored 282 runs in four matches, including a century and a half-century. In fact, in 12 Tests Down Under, he has six hundreds and an average north of 55.
India might miss Kohli’s leadership also. As a captain, inconsistencies in Kohli’s team selection have drawn criticism. At the same time, India under Kohli carries a different intensity on the field, as was the case during the team’s triumphant tour two years ago. India bounced back to win the third Test after conceding the second and held on to a 2-1 lead.
Even Pakistan’s Prime Minister Iman Khan, also their World Cup-winning captain, had tweeted a congratulatory a message to the India skipper. “I think Virat Kohli deserves lot of praise for this performance,” former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram had said. Australian allrounder Shane Watson, too, heaped praise on Kohli’s leadership.
Rahane’s captaincy style is not overtly aggressive as was evident during the only Test in which he led the country. In 2017, however, as he captained India in the all-important fourth Test against Australia in Dharamsala, with Kohli injured, Rahane became the ninth Indian skipper to win his first Test as captain. His decision — also then India coach Anil Kumble — to hand Kuldeep Yadav his Test debut proved to be a masterstroke, as the chinaman bowler’s four wickets in the first innings set up India’s series victory.
Without Kohli, who will bat at No. 4? That’s a big question, although India have options in KL Rahul and young Shubman Gill. Both are fine players, but Kohli is a great of the game. In his absence, a lot will depend on Cheteshwar Pujara. He was the reason why India had won the Test series Down Under two years ago. He fascinated everybody with his discipline, facing 1,258 balls in four Tests and scoring 521 runs, including three hundreds. It was Gavaskar-esque, although Pujara batted at No. 3.
Pujara’s batting in that series had captured the imagination of India’s youth. Soon after the Test series, this correspondent had met Gill, arguably India’s brightest young batting talent and an IPL regular for Kolkata Knight Riders, during a Ranji Trophy match between Bengal and Punjab in Kolkata. And this was what he had to say about Pujara’s batting: “He faced 1200-odd deliveries in Australia. To play that many balls in one series is something really great. It provides an inspiration. Scoring 500 runs in a tour/series, for example, is a good performance. But playing 1,200 balls in a series sets the benchmark for the youngsters.”
India have the bowling to account for 20 opposition wickets in a Test. But to defend the rubber, Pujara has to be at his peak, especially in Kohli’s absence. Rohit Sharma will be available for the Tests, but he will come after a month-and-a-half of inactivity and could be a little undercooked to start with.
There’s a debate if Kohli has taken the right decision by asking for paternity leave in the middle of such a high-profile series. After all, he is the captain. The answer is yes. For an expectant father, to be by the side of his wife when she is giving birth, is far more important than playing a game of cricket. For far too long, such responsibilities used to be a First World exclusivity.
Men from our part of the world probably didn’t have that awareness. It’s refreshing to see the change. During India’s last Australia tour, Rohit also came back to be with his wife and new-born baby girl. Former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal rightly called it “a progression” while supporting Kohli’s decision to return home mid-tour. “I don’t see any reason why Virat shouldn’t return. It happens everywhere, in every sport. It’s a progression,” Iqbal said.