It is hard to think about a forthcoming game of cricket in light of the tragic death of Phil Hughes. Having suffered from sudden loss myself this year, I can imagine what the Australian cricketers are going through at the moment – most of all Michael Clarke, who has lost not just a colleague but a best friend. What is more, they have to not just bear their loss but bear it in public, in the crucible of a Test match, one of the most mentally demanding forms of sporting contest at the best of times. One can only feel for them. Given this, I don’t see how the aussies can be unaffected in Adelaide. However tough they might be, however therapeutic a return to cricket might be, there is no way Australia is going to be 100% going into this Test match.
At the end of the day though there is a Test series to be played, it is a big one, and India’s chances of doing well in it look much better than they did when they returned home battered from England at the end of the summer. Much of this of course has to do with the unfortunate circumstances in which the series is going to commence. But there are some other reasons to be optimistic if one is an Indian supporter.
First: Australia is not a strong batting side. even their ashes win against England last year was built on their formidable bowling, not on particularly good batting. Clarke is returning from injury and has spent the past fortnight grieving publicly for his friend; David Warner is badly affected by Hughes’ death and may not even be in shape to play the game; Shane Watson is just returning from injury; Mitchell Marsh is yet to prove himself as a Test batsman. I think the most dangerous aussie batsman is Steven Smith, who is a class act and a future captain. But the batting line-up on the whole looks thin. Undoubtedly Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris will still be a handful and are as good a new ball pair as any in the world. But if we can attack the Australian batsmen, they will be under pressure.
Second: I think we have the bowling to attack the aussies. Our bowling attack has been much maligned, and I think it will have to be managed well to last through four back-to-back Tests. But there is some quality there. for me, the key player this series is the most maligned of the lot, Ishant Sharma. Clearly, he has become someone whom Indian fans and critics love to hate. But he has been India’s star performer in 2014. He was excellent in New Zealand, excellent in England, and he has what it takes to lead India to victory in Australia. In 2007, he was the young boy who burst on to the scene; in 2011, he was the big failure and symbol of everything that was wrong with the team. Now, I think he has quietly become ready to step into Zaheer Khan’s shoes as the leader of India’s attack for the foreseeable future. This is a huge series for Ishant: if he can get his lengths right, he could become a national hero over the next six weeks. In addition, in Australian conditions, the real x-factor will be provided by Varun Aaron. Aaron showed glimpses of what he is capable of in England, and he will really enjoy bowling in Australian conditions. He provides our attack with something England didn’t have in the ashes last year: a genuine pace-bowling option. It is worth unleashing him with the new ball to see what he can do.
And third: we have an outstanding squad in Australia, with virtually every member deserving of his place. one thing I cannot say enough is how much I admire this selection committee: it is rare indeed to have a committee with vision and foresight that rewards performance. The team selected for this tour is virtually identical to the one I selected, the only difference being that I would have picked Pragyan Ojha over Ravindra Jadeja. Still, even the best committees have to contend with the power of the CSK mafia, and Jadeja is unlikely to get a game, so hopefully he won’t do too much harm. For the most part, this is a squad that covers all bases.
I was hoping for a fourth factor that would work in our favor, M.S. Dhoni’s injury which would have allowed Virat Kohli to lead the side. alas, it seems like Dhoni is now virtually recovered and likely to lead in Adelaide. This evens things out a bit for the aussies, because Dhoni has the capacity to lead with such concerted defensiveness that he can allow the opposition into the game and the series even if the advantage lies with India.
At the end of the day, I think two things are going to be critical in Adelaide. The first is how Cheteshwar Pujara fronts up. While all the focus in the past few weeks has been on our one-day flat-track bullies, at the end of the day it is Pujara who has the technique and the temperament to blunt the threat of Johnson and Harris and thus allow the stroke makers the luxury of playing their games. I personally have faith that Pujara will put the nightmares of England behind him and come out a better player: what he went through in England was no different from what Rahul Dravid went through in Australia in 1999. Dravid learned from that and the next five years were the best phase of his career. I see something similar happening in Pujara’s trajectory. There is not a single Australian batsman with Pujara’s technical capacity, so if he can get it together it will not just be good for us in absolute terms but also provide an unmatched advantage relative to the opposition.
The second critical question concerns team composition. Unfortunately, we are stuck with Dhoni as captain if he is fit (though I fervently hope that this is his last Test series as captain and that he will retire at least from the longer format after the world cup). But Dhoni as batsman has earned his spot in the Test 11 after his gutsy performances in England. What worries me is Dhoni the wicket-keeper. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, Australia is one place where a fielding unit cannot afford to miss chances: the big grounds mean that such lapses can prove costly and run fielding sides ragged. Dhoni was never a great wicket-keeper, but in England his keeping had degenerated to the point of being embarrassing. Having him behind the stumps in Australia could be a dangerous liability, especially when the alternative is Wriddhiman Saha, technically the best keeper India has produced since Syed Kirmani, and no mug with the bat either. if there is one absolutely essential move India must make, it is to play Dhoni as a frontline batsman at number 6, and have the best wicket-keeper keep at 7. This means of course that Rohit Sharma will have to warm the bench, but I have no problems with that. I still have my doubts about Rohit as a Test match batsman abroad, and big double-hundreds in one-day games on flat tracks at home aren’t going to remove those doubts for me. Dhoni’s Ganguly-esque medium-pacers also provide a better part-time bowling option than anything Rohit can provide. One reason I am hopeful that this scenario might transpire is Dhoni’s hairline fracture and his desire to protect his hands in advance of the world cup. The one way in which he can fulfill both his desires – of captaining in the Tests and not risking his world cup participation – is to play purely as a batsman. Kohli as captain would still have been the ideal scenario, but Dhoni as specialist batsman is the next best thing. At least we’ll have someone behind the stumps who can take catches.
Therefore, my team for Adelaide: Vijay, Dhawan, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Dhoni ©, Saha (W), Ashwin, Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Aaron.