After a long away series in Sri Lanka where the Indian team handed the hosts one embarrassing defeat after the other in all the three formats, the action shifts to home conditions against a very familiar opponent. From 17 September, India begins its home season with a limited-overs series against familiar foe, Australia. With Sri Lanka proving to be a walkover, one would have thought that Australia would pose a bigger challenge. Former India batsman VVS Laxman, who has often been the chief tormentor of the Australians, feels that India will win the ODI series by a decent margin while Michael Clarke has predicted a different outcome.
"India will win the series 4-1," said Laxman after former Australian captain Michael Clarke predicted the visitors will win the series 3-2."
Laxman and Clarke were speaking in the panel discussion organised by Star Sports ahead of the Australia tour of India. Over the years, both the teams have been involved in some intriguing battles. While predicting a favourable scoreline for India, Laxman was also of the opinion that it won't come easy pointing out that in the last home season that saw India face New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia, it was the series against the Aussies that turned out to be the most competitive.
Having made winning a habit and boasting of a renewed vigour and aggression under the new captain Virat Kohli, comparisons were bound to happen between the present Indian squad and the Australian team in its prime.
Clarke acknowledged this change in attitude of the Men in Blue but pointed out that the seeds of this present aggression were sown during Sourav Ganguly's tenure as captain.
"Even when I first played in India, there was aggression under Sourav. He never took a backward step and inspired the rest of the team. This was then followed by Anil Kumble, MS Dhoni and now Kohli incorporating their individual styles of aggression," said Clarke, who is a World Cup winning captain.
Despite the aggression on field, the camaraderie between the players of both the teams improved over the years after the Indian Premier League, the inception of which has seen many Australian players treating India as their second home.
However, during the 2016-17 Test series, the bad blood spilled over between Kohli and Smith with the former saying that his friendship with the Australians was damaged. While both Kohli and Smith are considered modern-day batting greats, the apparent friction between both the captains has added an extra edge to this series.
"On the field it is all about business. As long as no one crosses the line and they play with sportsman spirit, I don't see it to be a problem if they aren't friends," said Laxman.
India and Australia would be considering this series to be a precursor for their preparations for the 2019 World Cup in England.
Laxman is of the opinion that the process has already started with the Indian team experimenting with their eleven. With the Indian spinners proving ineffective in the 2017 Champions Trophy in England, the selectors decided that there was a need for immediate inclusion of wrist spinners and grooming a finisher of merit.
With Yuzhvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav making it into the side ahead of India's other frontline spinners, the road map to 2019 World Cup gets clearer. In addition, the selectors' persistence with Hardik Pandya in all formats expresses their intent of carving an effective path to 2019.
However, Laxman thinks 'resting' players like Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Yuvraj Singh does not mean the end of the road for the seniors but it just explains the competency of India's bench strength and the strong structure of domestic cricket in India.
Australia's road to this series has been plagued with inconsistencies which was highlighted by the World Cup winning team failing to qualify for the semi-final of the Champions Trophy.
"The big names like David Warner, Smith need to decide the team's approach to the game, start winning regularly and take that form into the Ashes. We haven't had much success in the past and winning 4-1 against the Indian team will put us on top of the ODI ranking table," said Clarke.
The former captain added that the Australians will be more comfortable after playing in the IPL which has helped them acclimatise to the heat and humidity. Though Clarke believed this sense of familiarity with the conditions denies them any kind of excuses, he was aware of the void created by the absence of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood. "Cummins and Nathan Coulter-Nile need to take those early wickets if Australia wants to win the series," the former Australia captain said.
While the Australians have their task cut out against the Indians, the formidable batting line-up of the visitors poses a challenge for the Indian bowlers too.
However, Laxman believes that the present Indian team doesn't look at the opposition but delves deep within for improvement in every department of the game. He added that this was a very balanced team with hardly a weak link and the present series provides an opportunity for the Indian youngsters to shine.
Where there is talent, there will be comparison. When Laxman and Clarke were asked to pick the better captain and batsman among Kohli and Smith, Kohli seemed to be the clear winner. With both the former cricketers believing that the Indian skipper not only held the advantage over Smith in terms of batting but also was considered to be the better captain because he has made winning a habit.
"Kohli is an aggressive skipper who is not afraid to lose. This makes him a very good captain," said Clarke.
They also opined that the presence of an experienced player like MS Dhoni in the side is an asset for the Indian captain, who also scores extra points for his ability to be proactive and constantly learning on the job.
Talking about the one player who could make the difference between the teams, Clarke picked Cummins while Laxman couldn't stop gushing about the emergence of Hardik Pandya as the team's finisher, a role that players like Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh had previously revelled in.
The absence of experience in the Australian side led to questions if this was the weakest side visiting India from down under. Clarke brushed it off and said, "I'm silly but not that silly to say such a thing and make it front page news. Though they will miss Starc and Hazelwood, there are a lot of match-winning players and I believe that this team can beat India."
Laxman chipped in saying that every team goes through a transition and the recent matches in world cricket like the England vs West Indies second Test is an example of how there are no weak teams in cricket nowadays. The discussion ended with Clarke being asked if the present success of Team India in all three formats makes it the new Australia.
Clarke replied, "It is unfair to compare. India is India. It is as unfair as comparing Kohli to Brian Lara or Don Bradman. India is in the top three across all formats and it would be interesting to see how these two teams fare in this upcoming tournament."
The limited-over series consisting of five One Day Internationals and three T20 Internationals starts on 17 September with the first match set to be played in Chennai.