"Possibly our best chance to go out there and beat them (Australia).” Sachin Tendulkar
"I expect the series to close 3-1 in India's favour.” VVS Laxman
"If India don't win this series, they will never win in Australia.” Dean Jones
“This is a great opportunity to beat Australia in Australia.” Anil Kumble
The uber positivity is ubiquitous. The Indian cricketing fraternity is brimming with confidence as the team gears up for the Australia Test series. 'This is their best chance to win in Australia' might be the most spoken sentence in the last couple of months in events, interviews and press conferences attended by former players.
India have been craving for that elusive overseas win in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia) countries for nine years now but no series has elicited such positivity and hope as the 2018 Australia one.
It is completely understandable. Australia are bereft of their two talismanic batsmen - Steven Smith and David Warner - and India’s bowling unit, which has made a 'never before heard of' habit of picking up 20 wickets consistently, has breathed excitement into proceedings. The drastic change in the atmosphere is also palpable. As the trend goes, the war of words has begun, but within Australia's own cricketing fraternity this time.
A former captain says 'we’re not going to win s**t' in trying to be the nice guy and wants the team to play tough cricket rather than worrying about being liked, the present captain responds by saying they want to win the fans' trust back. Another former player jumps into the debate and talks about missing the point. The desperate cry for change of culture might see the Indian team being handed out bouquets rather than the in-your-face verbal uppercut.
Yes, India stand a glorious chance of breaking the SENA duck. However, there is always that big 'BUT' that saunters in at the entry point, staring with a devilish smile, on the pathway to an important series.
Ever since that 2013 South Africa tour, this Indian side has competed but there is a trope that has consistently dragged them down - squandering an advantage from dominant positions.
It happened on the visit Down Under four years ago and despite competing hard, India ended up losing the series in three sessions against Australia. This has been going on for too long.
It happened in New Zealand in 2014, England, Australia and now again in South Africa and England too this year. They desperately need that finishing blow. That knockout punch. Simply, the lessons haven’t been learned. The India team is like that oblivious student who, in spite of being armed with important questions, will end up messing up precisely in the mock tests and in the final exams despite being warned continuously of his mistakes by the private tutor.
"To be honest, we all felt there was not much that went wrong (in England). Whatever was not right was very extreme also,” India captain Virat Kohli said in the pre-departure conference in Mumbai. “We played good cricket, but the mistakes were also very extreme, that's why we lost that many number of games rather than winning those moments and winning the games."
It's not just about the extreme mistakes in England; the bigger worry is about repeating them.
As India head into the Australia Test series, it’s not all peaches and oranges. Apart from frittering away the position of ascendancy, there are few wrongs that India need to right.
It starts with their strength, which is also their weakness overseas - batting.
"I think our bowlers will do a pretty good job, (but) it will boil down to how our batsmen fare," Ravi Shastri had asserted ahead of the South Africa tour this year. At the end of three Tests, Indian batsmen ended up averaging just 19.15 in the rainbow nation and 23.90 in the next series in England.
The Australia series might well be decided on who wins the Indian batsmen vs Australia's bowlers battle. That Kohli is going to score runs in Australia is a given, but what about the rest?
There is not a blinding revelation in the fact that the Indian batsmen have struggled against the moving ball. In the last two overseas series, Kohli has scored 25 percent of the runs. This stat alone demands that his support system supply him some much-needed oxygen.
The first 25-30 overs will be tougher in Australia and this is where the top order's role will become crucial. India are battling their own demons at the top and Prithvi Shaw's injury has made it worse. KL Rahul is inconsistent, Murali Vijay averaged 6.50 and 17 in the SA and England series respectively and is looking to make a comeback into the side. The duo will most likely open in first Test unless Kohli has some other plans (Read Parthiv Patel or Rohit Sharma).
The top order averaged just 22.21 in SA and the England series combined. In the middle order too, Ajinkya Rahane is searching for form and running out of time. Cheteshwar Pujara’s away numbers imbue confidence. The positive for the batsmen is that unlike England and South Africa, pitches in Australia will be truer. A positive mindset along with a strong back foot game is the need of the hour. For Kohli, though, not getting stuck in the past is paramount.
"That's something again we've discussed with the whole batting group - how to focus on staying in the present and that is something that has personally worked for me," Kohli said before leaving for Australia. "To be able to stay in that particular minute and not think of anything else, like where I'm playing, what are the expectations, what are people going to write, or what are they going to say."
Australia's strength is its bowling with the likes of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon. The defining factor, though, might be how India tackle Lyon, the highest wicket-taker last time, given their struggles against spin which were exposed yet again against Moeen Ali in England.
Kohli's captaincy will be under the spotlight too. He came under criticism in the recently concluded T20I series and was also criticised for his team selection in the England series. At Lord's, in overcast conditions, he played Kuldeep Yadav ahead of an extra pacer and it massively backfired while England consistently kept getting their selections right. The absence of Hardik Pandya has made it tougher for the Indian captain with the six-batsman-five-bowler or seven batsman-four-bowler strategy still yo-yoing inside Kohli's mind. Maybe the best possible solution would be blindly following the opposition team (who announced their team a day prior, just like England) who have a better understanding of pitch and conditions. Improving upon their DRS usage is another challenge.
One of the biggest reasons why India's haven't managed to maintain stranglehold from the position of ascendancy is their inability to get the lower-order out. This bowling unit has impressed, however, it is this shortcoming that slipped under the radar. They have averaged 27.22 against the lower order (7-11) in the last five years, the worst among the top-five sides. It will all depend on how quickly they adapt to the pitches, as most travelling teams have found it tougher to adjust.
The Australia batting line-up looks weak on paper without Smith and Warner - they averaged just 23.59 in UAE Test series against Pakistan but the likes of Usman Khawaja (average of 59.38), Peter Handscomb (65.85) Shaun Marsh (44.65) and Mitchell Marsh (39.50) are different batsmen on home turfs. It could get tough after 25-30 overs with the Kookaburra ball and the Indian bowlers would need to play the patience game and maintain sustained intensity throughout the Test.
Kuldeep relishes playing on bouncy pitches and it wouldn't be a bad idea for Kohli to put his confidence in the wrist spinner. It might not happen though, given the fact that India are looking to bat deep with Kohli stressing upon the importance of lower-order contributions, and in such case Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja's stocks become higher.
The bowlers have been screaming for support from the fielders. The fact that India have dropped 21 catches in England (13) and South Africa (8) combined doesn't imbue enthusiasm. The fielders did improve in the final Test against England, but consistency is required especially in the slip cordon.
There are many holes that need to be plugged and Kohli kept stressing that the players need to take more responsibility individually in tough situations and need to do the right things consistently.
"Individuals need to take more responsibility, show more character in such situations and assess it, and then find a solution rather than thinking that the solution will appear from somewhere. Those are the things we are really keen on, going now in our next venture and especially in Test cricket" Kohli said.
"We need to get more consistent as a team, and for that each individual needs to sit down and remember what they did - whether we lost or whether we won. Only then you can implement those things or you can stop yourself from making those same mistakes. The vision will be provided, but decision-making is a very individual thing which everyone needs to improve."
All these talks of improvement, consistency take place after every series. Now, it's time they convert intent into results and metamorphose into that canny student who could solve even the 'out of syllabus questions'. It's a glorious opportunity and they wouldn't want to interject it with a 'BUT'!