Your money would be safe on India going in with four spinners — Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja — against Australia in the first Test at Chennai starting on Friday. Jaideep Vaidya says the four-Test series provides a great opportunity for MS Dhoni’s men to regain their lost reputation in whites.
A new year, a new beginning, goes the saying. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team will certainly be hoping that 2013 brings about a new dawn in Indian cricket — one that will make them forget the torrid 20-odd months that followed that epic high in April 2011 when they won the World Cup. Double defeats at the hands of the Englishmen, both home and away, and a drubbing Down Under seem to have knocked the stuffing out of India, who not so long ago were the No 1 Test team and World champions. They continue to be the No 1 one-day side in the world, but their performances in even that format of late flatter to deceive. While a 1-2 loss against arch-rivals Pakistan didn’t do the Men in Blue any good, a 3-2 win over an inexperienced England just wasn’t good enough.
So, as Dhoni and his men gear up to host Michael Clarke’s rather green bunch over the next month or so in what are bound to be four absorbing Test matches, the goal is clear: This is India’s best chance to regain their confidence in the whites. Even though the dreaded South Africa tour at the end of the year is more than nine months away, a win over Australia, be it against young side, will do a world of good to Team India. In fact, this is the most inexperienced Australian squad to visit Indian shores since Kim Hughes brought with him 10 blokes — out of 15 — who had never been on tour before. Needless to say, the hosts won that series comfortably. Dhoni’s men simply cannot afford to lose this series, given the strength (or lack of) of the Aussie squad, and the expectations of a billion who desperately want to see the team shake off their prolonged slumber.
However, India have a huge jigsaw ahead of them going into the first Test at Chennai. It starts with the opening pair. Gautam Gambhir, after averaging a shade over 28 in his last 16 Tests, was given the pink slip. The Indian selectors named three potential replacements for Virender Sehwag’s opening partner. Shikhar Dhawan shoved his way into the squad following an impressive domestic season, while the quintessential reserve opener Murali Vijay kept his spot in the 15 with a good showing in the Irani Cup. Mumbai’s Ajinkya Rahane also made it into the mixture, although indications are that he is being kept as a backup middle-order batsman.
Vijay has better odds of striding out into the middle along with Sehwag in Chennai, being a local boy and also having prior Test experience. In fact, in Australia’s last tour to these shores, Vijay had scored a match-winning ton in Bangalore. After Vijay and Sehwag, the next five batsmen select themselves, right up to skipper Dhoni at No 7. Ravindra Jadeja is likely to retain his place at No 6 due to his all-round abilities.
Coming to the bowlers, your money would be safe on India going in with four spinners in Chennai, including Jadeja. Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh, all could play at the dry, sun-baked MA Chidambaram Stadium pitch, which promises a lot of turn. One can expect a run feast early on, with the spinners taking on a dominant role as the match progresses.
The last time this ground hosted a five-day game was that magical Test in 2008 when Sachin Tendulkar produced a fourth-innings masterpiece to help India chase down 387 against England. Seventeen of the 33 wickets that fell in that match went to spinners.
Harbhajan, who has 81 scalps in 12 Tests against Australia at home and a turbulent history against the men from Down Under, should get in. In which case, Ishant Sharma is likely to be the lone pacer. The selectors, however, would be tempted to give young Bhuvneshwar Kumar his first Test cap.
The visitors, meanwhile, have decided to dispel all rumours surrounding selection and have already named their XI for the match. Unlike the hosts, Clarke has just one quality spinner at his disposal in Nathan Lyon and will stick to using Australia’s tried and tested method of utilising his quicks to win games. Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc thus have a lot riding on them come Friday, February 22. The Australian selectors decided to give a debut to young Moises Henriques, who has played in India before in the IPL, and is a handy all-rounder. Counting him, Australia have four quicks in their XI, and it will be interesting to see how Clarke shuffles them around Lyon.
Another potential weapon that the Australians possess, albeit by chance, is that their top three batsmen in the batting order — David Warner, Ed Cowan and Phil Hughes — are all left-handers. While Zaheer Khan would love to have a go at them, he is not going to be there at all in the series. How the Indian bowlers handle the three lefties at the top could prove to be vital.
Both teams will look to play to their strengths. While batting has traditionally been India’s trump card, they wouldn’t mind if their spinners stole the show either. The Indian team has many players who have a thing or two to prove, and this might work in their favour. The Australians, meanwhile, have reiterated that they will stick to their primary strength — pace. However, how much of it will their quicks be able to generate is the million dollar question. England exploited the conditions with their spinners and beat India at home. Can Australia do the same with their fast bowlers?
Australia: David Warner, Ed Cowan, Phillip Hughes, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke (c), Matthew Wade (wk), Moises Henriques, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, James Pattinson.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber)