Less than two years since they created history Down Under, the Indian cricket team is back on Australian soil in the unfamiliar territory of having to defend the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as visitors.
Time flies by quickly in sport, even after a tumultuous 2020 which brought the world to a grinding halt. In exactly a month’s time, Virat Kohli and his men will take to the field at the Adelaide Oval against an Aussie side which bears a distinct look to the one which they overpowered in a 2-1 series win in 2018-19.
The rankings have changed hands in the interim and it is Australia who will begin the four-match series as the No1 Test team in the world. The hosts are further emboldened by the presence of Steve Smith and David Warner after the batting mainstays were forced to miss the previous series against India due to their suspensions. Throw in Marnus Labuschagne, who has since transformed into a potential future great, and the challenge for India is humungous.
The fact that Kohli will return to India after the opening Test has further compounded the visitors ahead of the hotly-anticipated battle. The pendulum has clearly swung in Australia’s favour, and it will take a monumental effort for India to repeat their 2018-19 triumph.
Pakistan and New Zealand have been whitewashed in the previous Australian summer and the possibility that a similar fate could await India is not far fetched despite their credentials.
On paper, the two teams are evenly matched when it comes to the pace attacks. If anything, it is in the batting department that Australia have the edge with the presence of the Smith, Warner and Labuschagne triumvirate.
India sans Kohli look extremely thin with the bat, and a lot will ride on the output from Cheteshwar Pujara. The stalwart was the difference between the two sides last time around, with his mountain of runs and three centuries blunting the Aussie attack. Even for a batsman of Pujara’s calibre, to replicate those numbers will take some doing.
Pujara is adamant that India can topple Australia once again, but the right-hander will need support from his team-mates if that confidence is to be translated into tangible results. The worrying part for India is that they have two unknowns in the batting unit in the form of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul.
Rohit’s floundering Test career received a huge boost last year after he was promoted to open the innings in the home clashes against South Africa and West Indies. However, a maiden Test double ton in the comfort of home conditions doesn’t hide his rather ordinary record in overseas conditions. The dichotomy between his home (88.33) and away (26.32) batting averages is statistically the biggest in the sport’s history, according to ESPNCricinfo.
Meanwhile, Rahul’s performances on overseas shores don’t inspire much confidence either despite his innings of 110 at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2015. His overseas Test average is less than 30, while his record in Australia, in particular, is just a shade over 20.
Both these batsmen continue to be given a longer rope in Tests due to their white-ball displays and it will be foolish of India to expect them to perform miracles in India. Rahul comes into the tour on the back of a prolific IPL campaign, but that should be no indication of his prowess against the red-ball.
The last time Rahul was shoehorned into the Test side after a stellar IPL campaign, he turned out to be a walking wicket for England’s pacers in the 2018 tours. Their unquestionable talent might produce the brilliant odd knock in Australia, but whether they can achieve the consistency of someone like Kohli is a different matter altogether.
As such, much will revolve around the form of Ajinkya Rahane who is poised to take over the team’s captaincy after Kohli’s departure. Once a dependable batsman who relished overseas conditions, Rahane’s credentials away from home have taken a beating of late.
While he did have success in the West Indies last year, his performances in the last tours of Australia, England and South Africa have been unconvincing at best. He did get two half-centuries in the 2018-19 series in Australia, but a lot more will be needed if India are to stand up to the challenge of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. If his poor displays on the tour of New Zealand earlier this year are any indication, Rahane is in for a tough test against the Aussies.
That nine of his 11 Test tons came before the turn of 2017 is telling as well. His downward trajectory in recent years has been puzzling, and pertains more to lapses in concentration after good starts than any technical deficiencies.
India will hope he is in a much stronger space mentally in Australia, especially when he assumes the captaincy from Kohli. He will need to play the longer innings at the crease and shed his recent habit of throwing away strong starts.
The visitors don’t really need the Mumbai batsman to fill Kohli’s shoes. Instead, they need him to rediscover the player that was accustomed to being their batting linchpin on overseas tours previously. It is on the experienced shoulders of Pujara and Rahane that the bulk of India’s run-scoring burden will fall in Australia.
Pujara showed he was up to the task last time. It is now the turn of Rahane to prove his detractors wrong.