Another tantalising Test series is almost upon us.
Being a traditionalist, the real stuff starts now. The one-dayers and T20s are the appetisers for the main course.
This time for the Test match, confusion and chaos seem to be the order of the day. This first Test preview is set against the backdrop of uncertainty for both sides.
First thing’s first: unlike a number of sports, winning the toss in cricket is key. In a day-night match, to this you can add the vagaries of “managing” play to be able to bowl in the evening or the “twilight zone” where the ball can bend around corners. This is akin to tactics within tactics.
The Adelaide Oval clash is also shrouded in mystery and confusion around team selection. For Australia, replacing David Warner is proving to be extremely challenging. Joe Burns has been in poor form, while Marcus Harris, who played against the Indians two years ago, did not have a great time of it for Australia A. India planned for and succeeded with their leg side trap.
At the time of writing, Australia has drafted Moises Henriques into the squad, with no room for Usman Khawaja. Whether Cameron Green will make his Test debut and Marnus Labuschagne pushes up to open are vexed and fascinating questions.
In the uncertainty stakes, India’s selections are hardly more straightforward. Opener Prithvi Shaw threw away a golden opportunity against Australia A. India appears to have a shaky and inexperienced top order. Arguably, the India selectors were mindful of this at the outset, nominating four openers (or potential openers) in the squad: Mayank Agarwal, Shaw, K. L. Rahul and Shubman Gill. In fact, one could add Rohit Sharma to this list when he eventually returns.
If the batting order of both sides looks chaotic, in relative terms the bowling looks stable. For Australia one would expect the seasoned trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood to be the pace options, and Nathan Lyon the first choice spinner.
I doubt that either side will take two spinners into the game or four pacemen. Despite the propensity for swing at night, a balanced attack for the rest of the game is required. In India’s case, the pace trio of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav are likely to operate with the red cherry, with Ravichandran Ashwin as the sole spinner, unless India are tempted to have an extra slow bowling option and bat Ravindra Jadeja at number six.
Even in the ‘keeping stakes, there are questions for India. Will Rishabh Pant be behind the stumps or will it be Wriddhiman Saha? Both are also fine batsmen, with completely contrasting styles – the former is a swashbuckler, the latter more an accumulator. In Tim Paine, Australia has complete certainty. The teams look finely balanced, no matter what the final configurations.
In the batting stakes, Steve Smith versus Virat Kohli is the show stopper, with Labuschagne versus Cheteshwar Pujara almost the support act. One should not also under-estimate Travis Head or Ajinkya Rahane, both fine batsmen in their own right. India would need to obtain the maximum contribution of the captain Kohli before he heads back to India, which makes his non-selection in the matches against Australia A a little puzzling.
I am leaning towards a home victory here. This is for a number of reasons.
First, home ground advantage does play a role, even though one suspects that India’s best chance lies here. Tellingly, Australia has won all of its day-night Test matches at home against South Africa, England, Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. India and Australia have yet to play a day-night Test match here.
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Second, arguably and notwithstanding the opener woes, there is more overall stability and poise in the Australian line-up. While the Indian batting order is talented, apart from Pujara and to some extent Rahane, there are questions about the ability of the Indian line-up to graft and play dogged innings.
The third, and somewhat under-rated aspect, is the ability of the tail to provide useful runs. In Starc and Cummins, valuable runs can be counted on (and especially so if James Pattinson is chosen) and Lyon can more than hold up an end. This is certainly not the case for India, so clear advantage for Australia.
Fourth, while both teams have fine pace attacks, one just has a sneaking feeling that the variety of swing, seam, pinpoint accuracy and left arm-right arm combinations in the Australian attack may just provide a slight advantage. In the spin department, Lyon has a fine record, while Ashwin has a better home record at home than abroad.
Finally, the intangible. At home, Australia usually performs extremely well in the “clutch” moments.
In the end, who really knows? It may simply be a case of who best holds onto chances, takes advantage of the conditions, or plays the ultimate match winning hand.
In terms of the latter, enter Kohli or Smith.