Previewing the First Series of the Rest of Our (Cricketing) Lives…
By Oliver Fitzpatrick
Another summer rolls around and with it brings an intriguing Test series… India are set to take on Australia and both teams are under huge pressure to perform.
Australian cricket has been under the microscope like never before, with every aspect of the game scrutinised to the nth degree leading to player suspensions, board sackings and damning cultural reviews. Compounded with these immense off-field issues is the fact that the men’s team isn’t winning in any forms of the game.
The ‘meaningless’ ODI series against South Africa and the T20I series against South Africa and India have only served to amplify the arguments about how the Australian cricket team should play their cricket and what exactly ‘hard but fair’ means.
In many regards, the Baggy Green’s current challenges should make India’s task of winning a test series in Australia far easier, but it also raises the expectations on their performance here.
They go from being underdogs who can create their own history, to being the №1 Test team in the world, facing an Australian team on their knees. If they are to stumble here then this Indian team’s (and especially Kohli’s) legacy will be tarnished with the mark as the team who blew the chance to beat Australia in Australia.
In a sense, the crisis that continues to stunt the success and development of Australian cricket may, in fact, revitalise interest in the longest form of the game, if India prove to be the challenge they should be.
There have been so many cases of promising touring teams being crushed in Australia, leading to an uninteresting summer and as such, a hard-fought Test series is a rare delicacy to look forward to. Added to this prospect, the fact that we will get to watch one of the modern greats in Virat Kohli bat, as well as a young and exciting Indian fast bowling cartel, (not to mention the young gun Shaw once he recovers) and the ‘watchability’ of this upcoming series is approaching ‘must watch’ television.
On the Australian side, there is the chance for the players to earn back the love of the Australian public (as well as the respect of their opponents) as we collectively call out for a squad of eleven heroes to drag Australian cricket back into its glory days.
Toput into context why the №1 Test team could struggle against the №5 team, you need only to look at the history of India’s performances in Australia.
The overall record shows Australia’s dominance, especially at home.
India have only won one out of every nine Tests in Australia historically, which shows just how difficult it has been for India in Australia.
Furthermore, India have only won just two Test matches in Australia since 1981, one of which was their famous victory in Adelaide after being 4/85 in reply to Australia’s first innings score of 556. The other came in a dead rubber to end Australia’s run of 16 consecutive Test match victories.
Clearly, history is against Kohli’s side but this is a different Australia than they have encountered in past tours and now is as good a time as any for this touring side to write their own page in cricketing history.
Using a couple of simple rating systems that I have developed, we can compare the Australian and Indian squads to see where the series may be won or lost.
The batting ratings can be summarised as:
Starting rating: how reliable the batsman is at getting a start (higher rating means less likely to be dismissed early in an innings)
Eye-in rating: how likely a batsman is to make the most of a start
Cash-in rating: how likely a batsman is to make a big score once their eye is in
Conditions rating: how the batsman has performed in conditions similar to Australia (and in Australia itself)
Top Order Batsmen
Australian squad: Finch, Harris, Khawaja, S Marsh
Indian squad: Rahul, Shaw, Pujara, Vijay
There is some inexperience in both teams’ Top 3s. Harris is yet to play a Test and Finch and Shaw have only played two tests each and as such, they are harder to analyse using stats
The 19-year-old Shaw plundered a poor West Indian team but will face a much tougher challenge against a strong Australian attack away from home. This is an exciting prospect and rekindles memories of a young Tendulkar tearing apart fearsome Australian bowling attacks.
Finch has the chance to cement his spot in the test side if he has a good series. The team is crying out for leadership and would love for Australia’s ODI captain become a fixture in the Test side.
The selection policy regarding Harris will be interesting as many feel Matthew Renshaw is unlucky to not be opening for Australia. This means the pressure will be on Harris to perform straight away if he is selected. Renshaw’s triple century in grade cricket cannot have gone unnoticed by either the selectors or Harris.
As shown by the ratings, Pujara has performed the best at Test level for either side. Pujara’s ratings show that he is a very solid starter and is also able to go on and bat for a long time for a big score. The one question mark on Pujara is his performance away from India; his ratings reflect the fact that his average at home is 61.87 but away from India is 35.91. His last tour to Australia was only mediocre, scoring just one fifty from six innings.
Pujara is going to be a key wicket at the top of the order for Australia to claim and could be the barometer for how India are going to perform away from home on this tour.
Khawaja is also going to be an important wicket. While he is not rated as highly as Pujara, he performs best in Australian conditions and has finally been shown some faith by the selectors and his batting has improved as a result. With a lack of experience and security in not only the top order but the whole batting line-up, a lot of responsibility will fall to Khawaja and if India manage to get on top of him, they will go a long way to winning the series.
Rahul and Marsh are shown to have similar batting styles; both are very vulnerable early in their innings but if they get a start, they are reasonably good at going on to make a decent score.
Marsh has made a remarkable 10 ducks from his 61 test innings or one in every 6.1 innings, of players to have made at least 3000 Test runs (Marsh has made only 2082 runs), only Shane Warne has a faster rate (one in 5.8 innings). In 22 of Marsh’s innings he has made less than 5, this is once every 2.77 innings, which is a higher rate than any player to have made at least 3000 test runs.
Rahul performs marginally better at the start of his innings but at this stage of his Test career, both him and Marsh are amongst the most vulnerable starters to have ever played Test cricket. With both teams having strong pace attacks, it could be a deciding factor in the series as to which of these two players is able to make more starts and shield their middle order from the new ball.
Middle Order Batsmen
Australian squad: Head, Handscomb, M Marsh
Indian squad: Kohli, Rahane, Vihari, R Sharma
In recent years, only Australian Prime Ministers have had less job security than Australian middle-order Test batsmen.
In the latest change, Labuschagne has been dropped for Handscomb, who (if he plays) will be one of Australia’s more experienced batsman in the side with 13 Tests to his name. It is possible that all three of Handscomb, Head and Mitch Marsh play, which would see Harris left out of the side.
It is more likely however, that Harris will play, and he, Finch, Khawaja and Shaun Marsh will fill up the Top 4, leaving two of Handscomb, Head and Mitch Marsh to bat at №5 and №6.
No matter what the selection is, there cannot be much confidence of consistent performances warranted from any of these three players. Head is new to the team and proving himself, Handscomb has been in and out of the side and Marsh has played 51 test innings and scored above 50 in just 5 of them.
While, Mitch is a better starter than his brother, his deficiency is that once he gets a start, he is still just as likely to get out and hasn’t shown a capacity to consistently make meaningful contributions with the bat. There is no doubt that Mitch Marsh is a talented cricketer, but his Test cricket performances to date, particularly with the bat, have been well below what is expected of a Top 6 batsman. The responsibility of the vice-captaincy may however, bring out the best in him.
The inexperience and lack of proven quality in Australia’s middle order increases the pressure on the top order because if exposed early, this middle order may crumble and lead to an all too familiar batting collapse.
One factor that may stop these collapses however, is that it seems Handscomb has a good ability to start an innings. He has only been dismissed 19 times in Tests and so caution should be taken when analysing his stats so early on in his career, but he has a great record of making a start. In only two of his 19 innings has he been dismissed for less than 10, which is a far lower rate than any player to have made at least 3000 test runs.
In stark contrast, India’s middle order is very strong. Kohli is obviously the linchpin of not only the middle order, or the batting line-up, but arguably the whole team.
He is India’s captain, talisman and leader in every respect of those words, so it is not an overstatement to suggest that Kohli’s wicket is more valuable than anyone else’s this series. Dismissing Kohli early is of vital importance for Australia, he is a better than average starter, but it still takes him approximately 15 runs to get his eye-in, which is longer than most batsmen. Once his eye is in however, Kohli’s cash-in ratings are elite, and he rarely misses an opportunity to make a big score and put his team in a strong position. Therefore, the first 15 runs of each of Kohli’s innings are likely to be some of the most critical in the context of the series.
Rahane is very secure in the No.5 position and while not anywhere near Kohli’s level, has been a consistent performer in the №1 ranked Test team.
Unlike other Indian cricketers, Rahane has shown to have a better record away from home than in India and should enjoy batting in Australian conditions again after a good tour Down Under in 2014–15.
№6 is a bit up in the air for India, they have the option of going for the batsman Sharma, all-rounder Vihari or the keeper Pant, as they could all bat at №6 if both Jadeja and Ashwin are picked.
Sharma hasn’t translated his incredible ODI cricket record across to his Test batting and Vihari has played just one Test, in England earlier this year.
The strength of India’s №3 (Pujara), №4 (Kohli) and №5 (Rahane) means they have the luxury of picking an extra bowler if they feel the need to.
Lower Order Batsmen
Australian squad: Paine, Cummins, Starc
Indian squad: Pant, Ashwin, Jadeja, Patel
Cummins and Starc are tail-enders and not considered all-rounders, but they are included because they are likely to bat in similar positions to Ashwin and/or Jadeja and so the comparison is meaningful.
It will be interesting to see whether India decide to pick both Ashwin and Jadeja, they have both proven to be world class spinners at home and handy lower order batsmen as well. As mentioned previously, India’s strong batting line-up could give them the option of choosing an extra bowler and batting Jadeja and Ashwin at №7 and №8 (which is what they did recently against the West Indies).
Although not rated as frontline batsmen, their records show they are certainly useful players to be coming in at №7, №8 or №9 and are rated much higher than Australia’s ‘bowlers who can bat a bit’ in Starc and Cummins.
With scores of 114, 92 and 92 in his last three Test innings, Rishabh Pant is the form batsman of this group. He is only five Tests into his career and will benefit from having experienced heads in the batting line-up around him.
Despite being Australia’s captain, Tim Paine is inexperienced at Test level and his ratings reflect the fact that he hasn’t made a hundred in his 15 tests so far.
He has shown a great ability to start an innings however, and this could be vital if the inexperienced batting line-up above him fails and he is relied upon to ‘steady the ship’.
Paine would love a hundred this summer and despite not having a great record as a batsman in Test cricket, he is a key wicket for India psychologically.
If Paine fails to make an impact with the bat, then the inevitable questions around his place in the side will be thrown around and the leadership crisis in Australian cricket will only run deeper. On the other hand, if Paine makes a score early in the series then he can focus on his captaincy and keeping without any added pressure and the players around him can trust that their captain is secure in the side and can play the game how he wants to play it.
Back-up wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel returns to Australia with the possibility of playing a Test here for the first time since 2004. He has played just six tests since he was dropped after that tour and so will be hoping to create some happier memories this time around if given the opportunity.
The bowlers have been rated against each other in a similar way, the ratings can be summarised as follows:
Overall rating: combination of wickets, average and strike rate in all conditions
Conditions rating: how well have they performed in conditions similar to Australia (and Australia itself)
Top Seven rating: do most of their wickets come against players who bat in the top seven
Australian squad: Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood, Siddle, Tremain, M Marsh
Indian squad: Shami, I Sharma, U Yadav, Bumrah, Kumar
Apart from the absence of Smith and Warner, a large reason why many believe this is India’s best chance of winning a Test series in Australia is due to their fast bowling brigade.
It is a well-balanced attack with budding stars Bumrah and Kumar being supported by experienced players Shami, Sharma and Umesh Yadav. They have learned from the mistakes of other touring sides and taken a squad of fast bowlers, all of whom have performed well at Test level and can be picked depending on the conditions, form and fitness of other bowlers.
Australia’s big three of Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc are a formidable attack and are the main reason why Australia are given a chance of winning this Test series. Hazlewood’s guile and craft is perfectly complemented by Starc and Cummins’ pace and aggression. Starc is a master of cleaning up the tail and so the battle of him against Ashwin and Jadeja could be important if India’s tail is to wag.
Despite being just six Tests into his career, Jasprit Bumrah could be real match winner for the tourists.
He was impressive on the tour of England earlier this year and was able to generate a massive amount of swing. The conditions in Australia will almost certainly be less swing-friendly and bowler-friendly in general and so it will be a great challenge for the young quick to see if he can still be effective.
While Mitch Marsh hasn’t got a great record at Test level with the ball, 27 of his 35 Test wickets have been against Top 7 batsmen and so he could be considered a ‘partnership breaker’ and be used in this way in addition to giving the other quicks a rest.
Australian squad: Lyon
Indian squad: Ashwin, Jadeja, K Yadav
Kuldeep Yadav has had a brilliant start to his career, but it is still very much in its formative stages and it remains to be seen whether his great start can be maintained — if he gets a chance to play then there is no greater challenge for a spinner than a Test series in Australia.
Jadeja and Ashwin are world class spinners in India, but away from home both have struggled, and how they will perform is a bit of an unknown going into this series.
Jadeja hasn’t been shown much faith by selectors away from home, he played just the last test against England despite having an elite bowling average of 23.5. The selectors are clearly nervous to pick both Ashwin and Jadeja because of their potential to be ineffective in foreign conditions.
India’s strong pace attack is further reason for the selectors to go with just Ashwin and three (or four) quicks. Whoever they choose, the Australian batsmen versus the Indian spinner(s) looms as a significant battle. Given Ashwin and Jadeja’s records away from home it wouldn’t take much for Kohli to lose faith in their ability to take wickets in Australian conditions.
Australia could potentially limit Kohli’s options with the ball if their batsmen can get on top of the spinners. Alternatively, if Ashwin and/or the other spinners have success, it makes Kohli’s job a lot easier. He will be able to rest his quicks and allow the spinners to operate for long spells and take wickets as he does at home in India.
It would also improve the batting side of things, as Ashwin and Jadeja could both be considered all-rounders and so if both are picked, it frees up a selection spot — India can maintain picking three fast bowlers and rely on Ashwin and Jadeja to score lower order runs at No.7 and No.8.
Lyon’s role is less interesting than the other spinners simply because he is more of a known entity, he has performed well in Australian conditions and against many of the Indian batsmen.
While India have a strong batting line-up, he should be able to take wickets and keep an end tidy for the quicks.
Weighing it up, India look to have a great chance at winning their first ever Test series in Australia.
The key battle seems to lie in Australia’s top and middle orders against India’s bowling attack. Australia has an inexperienced batting order and much of India’s bowling attack are untested in Australian conditions, so this emerges as the area where the series could be won or lost for each team.
Australia have suffered numerous batting collapses in the past few years and if India can inflict a couple of them this series then they should have confidence in their batting to chase down small totals.
Conversely, if the young Australians can blunt the bowling attack, then they will give their own skilful bowling attack every chance to bowl them to victory.
It is hard to imagine this series being anything but entertaining as the World No. 1 Test team look to win where they have never been able to before…