<b>Close-in:</b> Pitch perfect Pune?
Test cricket will finally make its debut in Pune, the capital city of the Maharashtra Cricket Association on February 23. The Gahunje Stadium in the midst of the Sahyadri hills will be the venue between the two top Test cricket teams of the world, Australia and India.
India with a winning streak of 19 Test wins in a row and playing at home are the favourites having recently thrashed New Zealand, England and Bangladesh.
The battle against Australia I feel will be a treat for the conventional cricket followers. Although, the last visit of the Australian side in India was a 4-0 defeat for them, this time there seems to be some serious planning that has gone into their preparation.
The Australian side has been chosen on the basis of the Indian conditions and there appears to be a good mixture of youngsters and senior players. They have two specialist consultants in Sriram Sridhar from India and Monty Panesar from England. This itself shows how serious the Australian approach is as Monty was a success when he toured India and Sriram will give them enough of inside information as regards the conditions and preparations of the wicket around India. The hard work in preparing the pitch is always attributed to the groundsman or a maali and an interaction with him is an ideal way to understand the watering and rolling patterns of it. This is where Sriram will play an important part, so well understood by the Australian think tank.
Monty on the other hand will be useful in focusing on the speed and length that makes a spinner effective in Indian conditions, especially on a turner. Nathan Lyon is a well established spinner but youngsters such as Ashton Agar, Stephen O’Keefe Mitchell Swepson will benefit a lot from these two consultants.
India for most of this Australian side is not a frightening experience any more. Earlier sides were conquered off the field rather than on the field. The crowds, food, travel and a claustrophobic environment made most of them home sick. The IPL and the limited over international games have exposed them to the conditions that are prevalent in India. The venue of the first Test match is the home of the Pune Supergiants and starting from their skipper Steve Smith, their consistent opener Usman Khwaja, their new sensational debutant and wicket keeper Peter Handscomb and their all-rounder Michelle Marsh are all a part of their IPL side. Pune is, therefore, like their second home and India’s top bowler Ravindra Ashwin is a teammate. This will make it even more interesting as both the sides will have enough information about each other. The element of uncertainty and surprise will be drastically reduced.
Australia have also got a well oiled pace attack spearheaded by Michelle Starc, considered at present the best fast bowler in the world, along with Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Rice could be a handful when the ball reverse swings. The Australian batting is a formidable line-up with Smith, Warner, Maxwell, Khwaja and the young opener Matthew Renshaw along with the Marsh brothers and their wicket keeper Mathew Wade. Their practise in Dubai revolved around using their feet and playing late and with soft hands against spinners. India will need to improve their close catching or else they could be in deep trouble. The New Zealand and England side did not seem to have prepared themselves in the way that the Australians have mentally and physically done so.
Sports analytics is one area that the Australians have mastered. Their players are being subjected to the latest technology in assessing their physical conditions, their strength, stamina, diet, sweat loss and the body wear and tear. Apart from evaluating the strength and weaknesses of the Indian players the Australian support staff will be using every tool to ensure that their players will be in top physical condition, which is a lot easier because the series comprises of only Test matches.
India on the other hand are on a roll. Nineteen wins in a row is a fabulous achievement and with players in form, India is well prepared to take on any team of the world. To have a triple century maker in Karun Nair sitting on the bench shows the depth of the present Indian batting. The feats of the consistent Virat Kohli seems to over shadow the remarkable performances of Murali Vijay, a class player, so pleasing to the eye and the resolute and ever dependable Cheteshwar Pujara. The latter along with Ajinkya Rahane are two classic Test players who have been blessed with good technique and temperament.

The beauty of the encounter between Australia and India is that both the teams are at their peak form. The captains, Virat Kohli and Steve Smith are both leading from the front with huge and consistent scores against every side that they have played against. The batting strength of both the sides are very similar as well as the performances of the wicket keepers/ batsmen. India does have an advantage in the spin department with Ravindra Ashwin in scintillating form and Ravindra Jadeja supporting him to the hilt. The Australian will still need to get their length, line and speed sorted out to become effective and they will need to be patient to do so.
The Pune wicket if prepared well can lead to tall scores and the Australians are basically very aggressive and this could lead them to getting frustrated. India on the other hand have shown that patience during long partnerships is one important factor that has made them successful in the recent times.

The encounter has the potential to have some interesting sledging incidents. Australia is well known for it and now that there is a friendship and admiration between the two sides these banters are expected. A bit of fun and frolic is most acceptable and although I do not see things go out of hand, a few strugglers and stragglers will have an uncomfortable time in the middle. The present Indian team is not one to take it without retaliation and so there could be a lot excitement and asides during the match and a few laughs and beers thereafter.
Both Darren Lehman and Anil Kumble are well established coaches and their mentoring and understanding of the situation and the players will be another interesting aspect of this series. They will play a major part in their team's strategy and selection and one can look forward to a few innovative tactics from each one of them
For India this could be the last frontier as conquerors at home, although, Australia will not be an easy target as they have prepared thoroughly to take on the mighty giants in their den. Test cricket to me will be the ultimate winner.

(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Indian cricketer)
Columnist: 
Yajurvindra Singh
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