There is an apocryphal story that used to do the rounds in the maidans of Mumbai cricket in the70s. The protagonist of that story was a manager of a club team that boasted talent, blending youth and experience with a few former national and international cricketers thrown in. Each time, before the start of a match, the gentleman used to take out a paper and pen down the ‘estimated’ score of his side as well as the number of wickets he would expect his bowlers to take.
The net result of his ‘projections’ was his team always scored in excess of 500 runs and bundled the opposition out for less than a hundred.
The story always drew laughs and sniggers inside the many tents that dotted the sparse open grounds. The simple reason being that the manager, whose ambitions of making predictions that would put Nostradamus to shame, mostly ended up with a side that lost more than it won.
There is a hint of something similar that’s expected by Indian fans (including yours truly) that is bubbling as ‘strong’ India take on a ‘weak’ Australia in the Oceanic continent for a four-Test match series. Normally, knowing what had happened in the past, one would have expected the Australian players to start sniping at the heels of the Indians before they began their impending ‘historic’campaign.
What one is reading, from reports coming on the eve of the first Test match at Adelaide, the Aussies are paying compliments to the visitors and the Indians are returning them. In a pre-match media interaction, Aussie paceman Josh Hazelwood has described the Indian batting to be the strongest in the world while Indian vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane gushed about Australia being favourites to win the series.
For Indian skipper Virat Kohli, the tour of England (earlier this year) was the final frontier in terms of his ability to score runs on softer and seamer-friendly wickets. As a batsman, Kohli has wowed English cricket commentators and fans alike with his phenomenal run of scores - 593 runs including two hundreds. He will certainly be nominated as one of the ‘Cricketers of the Year’, a glory most sought after in olden times.
Hazelwood is aware of the Indian skipper’s penchant for scoring runs with gay abandon on Australian pitches. Kohli scored 692 runs in Tests at an average of 62, a phenomenal tally during his last tour down under. Kohli will be the Australian target number one during the Test campaign and his quick dismissal will be the one that the Aussies will hope and plan for.
Kohli’s run with the bat in England and during India’s last tour of Australia had little impact on theseries result which went the hosts way on both away tours. The problem, therein, lies with the rest of the Indian batting which, like the apocryphal story mentioned above, is strong ‘on paper’ and not on the 22-yard pitch where the game is played.
The collective failure of the rest of the Indian batting, barring bursts by Cheteshwar Pujara, AjinkyaRahane and KL Rahul (one innings) was essentially the reason why India could not press home the advantage gained by their bowlers and convert great starts into victories. Post the English series, when an English bowler was asked what plans they had to dismiss Kohli early, he said that they didn’t concentrate on Kohli, who was in sublime form, but targeted the rest of the Indian batting.
The Australian attack of Hazelwood, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and veteran spinner Nathan Lyon will most certainly concentrate on the rest of the Indian batsmen as much as they would look to get the Indian skippers back. With the prodigious Prithvi Shaw out of the first Test match, the Indians will open with the experienced Murali Vijay, who makes a comeback and has scored the first Indian ton in the solitary friendly match played and Rahul whose form looks a bit dodgy at this point in time.
With Pujara, Kohli and Rahane to follow, the Indians will wear the cap of worry - whether to pick the mercurial stylist Rohit Sharma or go with the young Hanuma Vihari who also impressed in the practice match. Knowing Kohli’s penchant for taking punts, it looks most likely that Rohit will be the chosen one (this is written on the eve of the first Test) putting Vihari on the bench.
The hype created by most analysts, who are predicting an Indian victory, does not hold water simply because the Indian batting, barring the skipper, has not been consistent and failed on their last two away tours of England and South Africa. Apart from this fact, the two other issues that Kohli must be facing are getting the bowling combination right and the lack of a wicket-keeper of Test caliber.
The 12-member squad announced by the Indians have only four front-line bowlers - Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah. The lack of a fifth specialist bowler may propel the Indian think tank to pump for Vihari’s inclusion as he also bowls off spin.
During the tour of England, Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar kept harping for a team comprising of six specialists batsmen and four frontline bowlers. One can safely assume that the wise sage of Indian cricket will have the same combination in mind on the present tour.
The theory that the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner has made the current Australian side a weak one is pure hogwash. The Aussies have accepted the loss of their two star players, moved on and will come hard at the Indians concentrating on their bowling attack which is top class. In effect, as a series opener, it will be safe to say that the four Test series will be between the Indian batting and the strong Australian bowling.
The Indian fan (like the club team manager from Mumbai) will be prudent not to assume the ‘strength’ of the Indian batting as it looks on paper but hope they put in the effort to put runs on the board to give the bowlers a fair chance to attack. After all, this tour will tell if they are paper tigers or not.
(The writer is a former Cricket Club of India captain and Bombay University cricketer)