Murali Vijay and KL Rahul key players in India’s quest for history in Australia
Murali Vijay was the first to the Adelaide Oval on Wednesday afternoon. @AFP

ADELAIDE: Until a week back, Murali Vijay was far from a shoo-in for India’s first Test against Australia, starting at the Adelaide Oval on Thursday (December 6). The veteran opener, jettisoned after a pair against England at Lord’s in July, had fought his way back into the jumbo-sized 18-man squad, but KL Rahul was the marginal favourite to partner boy wonder Prithvi Shaw at the top of the tree.

One man’s misfortune, they say, is another’s lifeline. Eager to build on the brilliant start to his Test career, Shaw received an unkind cut in the form of a ligament injury in his left ankle while fielding during a warm-up match against the Cricket Australia XI at the SCG. The Mumbai batsman’s misery opened the door for Vijay’s comeback in a country where, on India’s last visit, he stacked up 482 runs in four Tests at 60.25.

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Vijay is one of five top-order batsmen – alongside Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma – on their second Test tour of Australia. Virat Kohli i s on his third, like R Ashwin lower down the order. In Shaw’s forced absence, Rishabh Pant now looms as the only first-timer in Australia apart from Hanuma Vihari, who is vying with Rohit for the No. 6 slot.

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It is this experience of Australian conditions that India will seek to exploit over the next five weeks as they target history. No Indian side has returned from these shores with a Test series triumph to its name; the expertise and familiarity in this line-up, coupled with the relentlessness and depth of the pace attack, lend themselves to the belief that that anomaly could be corrected by time of the final act of the four-match series, the New Year’s Test at the SCG.

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Vijay was the first to the Adelaide Oval on Wednesday afternoon, the early bird immediately hitting the nets while the rest of his mates were still at their hotel, a few hundred metres away. The lone ranger played numerous sweeps to offspin genuine and unthreatening, honing his skills for the forthcoming battle against Nathan Lyon.

KL Rahul is in need of runs to hold down his spot as opener
KL Rahul is in need of runs to hold down his spot as opener. @ AFP

A little while later, as the nets hit full gear, Rahul swapped his bat for a stump. Feet firmly glued to the ground and moving nary an inch, he sought to put stump to ball by playing in front of his body, the initial routine of edge or miss soon replaced by the staggering consistency with which he struck the ball with the middle of the thin stick.

He was then put through a tennis-ball barrage by the support staff in anticipation of the short stuff that Mitchell Starc and Co. are certain to dish out. Alternately, Rahul attempted the leave, the ramp and the pull with varying degrees of success, only exiting the plan after playing the pull with genuine authority a half-dozen times on the bounce.

Vijay and Rahul have emerged as key figures in India’s quest for history. Virender Sehwag and Aakash Chopra (in 2003-04) remain the only Indian opening pair to post more than one century stand in Australia. For India, whose batting was underwhelming in South Africa and England in admittedly difficult batting conditions, to post the tall totals that will allow their bowlers to attack with confidence, a good start is imperative so that the experienced middle-order has the freedom to express itself.

“It certainly will help, the fact that we have played quite a few Test matches here before and scored runs,” Kohli agreed on match eve, pointing to the big runs he himself (692), Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane (399) made on the previous tour. “It’s even more important to know that you have performed in a place and you know how to get runs there. It’s all about remembering those good things that we did and applying it here. I know England and South Africa were tougher, Australia can be a great place to bat if the batsmen apply themselves well. But it takes character, it takes grinding out tough situations.”

In extremely challenging conditions in South Africa, and then England, India’s batsmen came unstuck, magnifying Kohli’s magnificence that much more. The same woes might not plague them in Australia, where pace and bounce more than seam and swing are the biggest threats. Rohit’s famed back foot play, allied with his brilliant record in white-ball cricket in Australia (1143 runs in 27 ODIs at 51.95), will be a massive asset if he gets the nod ahead of Vihari, but as ever, it will be around their electric captain that India’s batting fortunes will revolve.

Obsession with Kohli seems to be an Australian pastime, and the Aussie media can’t have enough of the Indian captain. ‘Get Kohli, get India’ is a popular theme. The Indian skipper warned that it wasn’t that straightforward. “All of them have so much ability that every one of them can single-handedly turn any game,” he said of his batting colleagues. “This is something I believe in 120%, and they have faith in themselves.”

It’s time for that faith to translate into runs. Otherwise, the dream of an Australian conquest in Australia will remain just that.