Brisbane: In January 2016, India lost the ODI series in Australia by a 4-1 margin. The top-order was on point, with Virat Kohli scoring a mountain of runs and Rohit Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan playing their support role as usual. The visitors scored 300-odd runs in every game, and yet didn’t come close to winning the series as Australia shot into a 4-0 lead.
The reason? India’s bowling attack – comprising of Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Barinder Sran – wasn’t up to scratch. They did win the ensuing T20I series by a 3-0 margin though. India’s attack in that series was only a little different – Ashish Nehra and Hardik Pandya came in to support Bumrah, Ashwin and Jadeja as the visitors stepped up preparation for the 2016 World T20.
That achievement – a 3-0 whitewash – was celebrated amply, and for good reason. It was the first-ever whitewash accomplished by an Indian team on Australian soil. It was also the first time one heard Ravi Shastri (Team Director at that time) make comparisons with the past. For once, it was a deserved comparison even if it wasn’t a valid one because there wasn’t much international T20 cricket played before this.
The bottom line, however, is that India were never favourites for winning either that ODI or T20I series. That has been the norm forever – visit Australian shores and the hosts invariably have the upper hand. ‘Playing at home’ is always advantageous, but in Australia, it takes a significantly different meaning.
When a team travels to England or South Africa, a slight variation in conditions can level the playing field and the visiting side can compete or even dominate if it possesses the resources to do so. In Australia, particularly in limited-overs’ cricket, the conditions do not tend to vary altogether. It provides an upper hand to the home team with the visiting teams struggling to come to terms with extra bounce and bigger boundaries.
That 2016 ODI series is again a case in point. India scored 309, 308, 295, 323 and 331, yet ended up winning only the final game in Sydney. It brings about a simple conclusion – unless you are bringing along an accomplished bowling attack, don’t expect things to be easy in Australia. It is a lesson that travelling Indian teams have learnt the hard way for the past many decades.
In that light, perhaps the 2007-08 CB Series’ win stands out for the Men in Blue. It isn’t to say that Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar, Munaf Patel, Piyush Chawla, Harbhajan Singh, Irfan Pathan, S Sreesanth, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh’s pies were India’s best bowling attack ever. Yet, these names did form the backbone of the 2011 ODI World Cup triumph, and so the pieces were all there. For once, that jigsaw fit in Australia as well.
Or, you can simply refer to the recent South African tour here, with the likes of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Imran Tahir, Chris Morris and Lungi Ngidi easily rolling over Australia. “South Africa were all over us from the start of that series with the ball. It's pretty hard to come out and have so much presence when they're so far ahead,” said T20I skipper Aaron Finch on Tuesday.
His words thus put India in the spotlight. Arguably, the Men in Blue possess the best bowling attack in white-ball cricket at the moment. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah are the best pacers in the world, with the wrist-spin twins wreaking havoc wherever they go. Add a couple more elements, and even in the absence of Hardik Pandya’s balancing act, this is perhaps the most formidable Indian bowling attack to come visiting Australian shores ever.
Add to it, the world’s best batsman in Virat Kohli, the most formidable opening pair in white-ball cricket (Sharma-Dhawan again), and an aggressive middle-order itching to make a mark before the 2019 World Cup comes along, and you get an Indian team that is starting as favourites in this T20I series. When was the last time such a statement was asserted in the context of playing Down Under? Never.
As such, selection for India is easy. Manish Pandey goes out, Kohli comes in. Washington Sundar goes out, Bumrah comes in. In the absence of Hardik, brother Krunal Pandya gets an extended run as all-rounder, as does KL Rahul despite his lack of runs. Perhaps the only toss-up is whether to go in with Chahal or Kuldeep, and we might have an inkling which way the coin will fall on that one.
Of course, it isn’t all about India. There is always the hanging question about Australia’s bench strength. Would recent results have been different if Steve Smith and David Warner had been available? Probably. Would Australian cricket not have been in this mess if they had not tampered with the ball in South Africa? Surely, yes!
That comical bit of foul play in Cape Town will haunt Australian cricket for a long time, and its reverberations are already being felt widely here. November usually means that cricket becomes the top sport in the summer months, but this time anticipation has given way to despondency. Nobody is quite sure how the looming shadow of that ball-tampering scandal can be gotten rid of, and it doesn’t help that both on and off the field, Australian cricket is lacking in leadership that inspires or instils confidence.
Their only hope is in the duration of format. T20 cricket allows for reputations to be ignored, and maybe the Australian players will be liberated in this thought. Sure, it isn’t easy to ignore the likes of Kohli and Sharma, or even Bumrah and Kuldeep, but all it takes is one moment of genius inspiration, or perhaps an element of surprise, to turn the game on its head. In the fast-paced setting of T20s, such moments cannot be controlled or negated with ease.
India will prove difficult opponents, no doubt. But if Australia are to stand any chance this summer, and in their own den too, they need to come out all guns blazing from ball one at the Gabba.