It is being hyped as Team India's "toughest assignment of the home season" by some and it's not too difficult to understand the logic behind the statement.
South Africa barely could adjust to the conditions under interim coach Enoch Nkwe, and were almost made to look like minnows in the three-Test series. Bangladesh gave a fight early on in the T20Is, but put up as much of a challenge in the Tests as the Proteas did in whites. The Kieron Pollard-led West Indies fared better and tested the Indians early on in each of the 20-over and 50-over legs of their tour, but couldn't ultimately capitalise on the key moments to walk away with a series win. Sri Lanka, despite all the hope of being an improved side after their heroics in Pakistan, could barely challenge Virat Kohli and company in the short T20I series earlier this month.
A rejuvenated Australian side, bolstered by the return of David Warner and Steven Smith in their ranks since the World Cup last year, appear on top of their game at the moment although much of their success over the course of their home summer was in the elite five-day format. And it's not even been a year since the five-time world champions masterminded a triumphant comeback in the five-ODI series in March last year after trailing the hosts 0-2.
Australia have traditionally been tough visitors as far as limited-overs assignments hosted in India are concerned, and the Indians perhaps will be every bit as cautious and prepared as they would for an overseas assignment.
Among the key talking points ahead of the first one-dayer at Mumbai on Tuesday are the match-ups between the two sides. You have comparisons between two leading openers in Rohit Sharma and David Warner, two members of the 'Fab Four' in Kohli and Steve Smith. In Jasprit Bumrah and Pat Cummins, you have two world-class seamers who find consistently themselves in the top 10 of the ICC bowlers' rankings.
Team combination is a commonly discussed topic in the build-up to any cricketing event, and the return of Rohit and Mohammed Shami in the squad after getting a breather in the Sri Lanka T20Is certainly makes things a lot more interesting from the team management's perspective. The debate rages on as far picking between Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul is concerned, especially after Dhawan made good use of the opportunity offered to him against Sri Lanka and scored a cracking half-century in Pune.
Kohli, however, went on to say he's willing to try all three in the top order, with Rahul coming in at 3 and the captain himself dropping down to No 4 — a spot which Shreyas Iyer seems to have had a grasp on with a string of consistent performances. Whether that is a temporary move by the team management to fine-tune their opening combination in the build-up to the T20 World Cup later this year, or a step that could change the Indian ODI batting lineup completely, remains to be seen.
Shami's return to the squad, on the other hand, makes the possibility of both Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur being benched quite probable, at least until the series is secured in India's favour. However, Thakur's recent surge as a handy batsman down the order could make him a contender for the third seamer's slot, but that move will likely happen at the expense of Shivam Dube.
Smith and Warner were not part of the one-day tour of India last March even though the Cricket Australia-imposed year-long ball-tampering ban had expired. Both however, slammed fifties in the lost World Cup encounter at The Oval, a game remembered for Dhawan's umpteenth ICC event century, and the spotlight will certainly fall on them come Tuesday. There is an individual however, who could outshine the duo if recent form across formats is taken into account, an individual who is yet to make his foray into limited-overs international cricket.
Marnus Labuschagne was the toast of the summer Down Under thanks to his Bradmanesque tally of 886 runs at an average of 110.75 across five Tests against Pakistan and New Zealand (as against Smith's 774 runs in the Ashes last summer at 110.57). None of this would've happened had Smith not got struck by a Jofra Archer bouncer at Lord's, a moment that will go down as career-defining for the South African-born Queenslander.
As far as captain Finch is concerned, there's no reason why the latest wunderkind of Australian cricket cannot carry his red-ball form over to his white-ball debut. "We know that he's not going to be overawed by the occasion. He's come back into Test cricket after missing out at the start of the Ashes and he's been unbelievable, so hopefully he can continue that," Finch said before the team's departure for India.
With the Australian top three pretty much settled with Finch, Warner and Smith, Labuschagne might get himself slotted into the No 4 slot that had been occupied by Usman Khawaja the last time the Aussies played 50-over cricket, a position he's not unfamiliar with in the domestic circuit back home.
Cummins leads the bowler's pack, with Adam Zampa as the frontline spinner and Ashton Agar and D'Arcy Short as the spin-bowling all-round backups. Whether both Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc are included in the XI will depend heavily on the conditions on offer.
Hazlewood had been omitted from the Australia World Cup squad and hasn't played an ODI since late 2018, and is coming off a three-week injury layoff due to a hamstring tear. However, with a couple of recent Big Bash games under his belt before arriving at the subcontinent, as well as his experience, the pacer's fairly confident of getting game time in the short series that follows.
Coach Andrew McDonald, filling in for Justin Langer who has been given a break for this series, camped at the Wankhede ahead of the series opener in order to prepare his side for the dew factor that plays a major role in a captain's decision at the toss. What the visitors will find difficult preparing for however, will be the prospect of playing in front of the noisy home fans against a team that is enjoying one of it's best-ever runs in its history.
While for some, there's "nothing tougher than playing India in India", others such as Australian legend Ricky Ponting have predicted a 2-1 series scoreline in the visitors' favour. Whether Australia lives up to its billing of being India's toughest opponent in their home season yet, and ends their unbeaten run since the tour of the Caribbean or not, we certainly can expect to see some riveting contests over the course of this week.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma (vc), Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Rishabh Pant (wk), Shivam Dube, Ravindra Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Navdeep Saini, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Shami.
Australia: Aaron Finch (c), Ashton Agar, Alex Carey (vc), Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Marnus Labuschagne, Kane Richardson, D'Arcy Short, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Ashton Turner, David Warner, Adam Zampa
1st ODI: 14 January, Mumbai (1.30 pm local)
2nd ODI: 17 January, Rajkot (1.30 pm local)
3rd ODI: 19 January, Bengaluru (1,30 pm local)
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