Eight losses and two draws. That’s the tally for Australia in Tests in India since their famous Test series victory in 2004. Australia are currently on a seven-game losing skid in the country Steve Waugh monikered “final frontier”.
The team from Down Under has undergone a bit of a facelift in the last three months as some of the players were axed quite ruthlessly after defeat to South Africa at home. While they may not boast the experience and wealth of runs in their line up like many of the previous Aussie sides to visit India, they still hold sufficient ammunition in the bowling department to challenge the hosts, who are on impressive home streak of their own.
New Zealand, England and Bangladesh combined to play nine Tests in India in the 2016-’17 season and only England salvaged a draw – just once. The annihilation of the opposition by India on their home soil has been complete, and their dominance, total.
Even before Australia set foot in India, there has been talk of India steamrollering them through the four Tests, and there is some validity to it; the form of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja coupled with the run production from the Indian batsmen. However, Australia possess something in their arsenal that none of the three earlier visitors had: A top quality bowling attack spearheaded by an out-and-out pacer who also happens to be a left-armer.
Australia’s fast bowling arsenal
Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon and Steven O’Keefe figure to be the main components of the Australian bowling attack that India will have to contend with in the series. There are further pace options in Jackson Bird and all-rounder Mitchell Marsh, as well as spinning choices in young Mitchell Swepson and Ashton Agar.
While India faced the pace of Trent Boult, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Taskin Ahmed et al., none of them possessed the lethal combination of pace and swing like Mitchell Starc. The left-arm pacer especially is deadly to opening batsmen; 30% of his 143 Test wickets are of batsmen that opened the innings.
This coupled with the fact India have utilised eight different opening combinations and the preferred KL Rahul-Murali Vijay duo average less than 19 runs per innings together, provides the perfect opportunity for Australia to make early inroads, and force the Indian middle order bulwark to deal with Starc and the new ball.
The other dimension to Starc is that his pace – regularly in the high 140ks – will be something the Indian lower-order batsmen have not had to deal with in the recent nine home Tests. The lower order has routinely bailed out India from trouble by forging valuable partnerships amongst themselves or provided company to top-order batsmen to pile on large totals. If Starc’s pace could limit India’s ability to extend their innings by disposing off the contributions from the bowlers, it increases Australia’s chances and limits the scoreboard pressure that Indian spinners could apply on the Aussie batsmen.
Hazlewood, amongst the top-ranked bowlers in the world, has the metronomic accuracy and nous of his idol, Glenn McGrath. His relentless attack on a length that does not allow batsmen to easily come forward and hang back, and the discipline to maintain specific lines of attack, have seen him collect his 109 Test wickets at an average of under 25, while going at just 2.8 runs an over. He is durable – has missed just one Test through forced rest – since his debut and has the ability to bowl long spells. This will provide the control that Steve Smith will need to keep the Indian batsmen quiet from at least one end, while he could resort to attack from the other.
Nathan Lyon, the most experienced player in this Australian side, is also the most successful off-spinner in Australian Test history, and trails only Shane Warne and Richie Benaud in career wickets. He has been perennially underrated, and has routinely proved his detractors wrong; since his debut, he has appeared in 63 of the 66 Tests that Australia played. Australia is supposed to he place where finger spinners are not expected to be successful but Lyon has found ways to thrive even there.
With the experience of playing in India in 2013, during which he picked his career-best innings haul at Delhi (7/94), Lyon is far superior to any of the spinners that India have faced this home season. He achieved his second-best figures against India as well – in Adelaide 2014 – and the confidence of having done well against Indian batsmen will hold Lyon in good stead.
The fourth bowling option will be between left-arm spinner Steven O’Keefe (likely) and pacer Jackson Bird (when conditions allow). O’Keefe will be expected to play a role not very dissimilar to that of India’s Jadeja, which is to keep the scoring down by utilising tight lines. Bird is a dependable third seamer, with prior experience and success of opening the bowling for Australia.
If India do however provide playing surfaces that turn form the get go, Australia have Mitchell Swepson, a leg spinner who has shown tremendous promise in his young cricketing career and even received backing from Shane Warne, as well as the left arm spin of Agar.
No Test match is easy. Even as India have rolled over all visitors this season, it hasn’t been entirely easy. However, they will soon find out how much harder it is to win against an opposition that has a well-rounded and experienced bowling attack. If Australian batsmen challenge India as much as their bowlers, we are in for a real treat over the next few weeks.