Australia's toughest opponent, and the spin dilemma
Most of the pundits have written off India's chances in the four-Test series against Australia, and while a dispassionate analysis of the Indian squad shows plenty of holes - a largely inexperienced pace attack, an aging batting line-up, and the lack of a settled opening pair are three concerns - there's little doubt that in the last decade India have been the one side to have consistently stretched the Australians.
The Australians were far too strong in 1999-2000, but in the last three series - two in India, one in Australia - both teams have had four wins each, with three games being drawn. The other teams have together managed just six wins against Australia in 75 Tests since 2000.
The numbers in the table below show just how unstoppable the Australians have been. All teams apart from India have averaged less than 30 runs per wicket with the bat, and more than 40 with the ball against them. For India the difference between their batting and bowling average is less than six, but the next best is England, with a difference of 15. Pakistan and West Indies have fared even worse.
|Team||Tests||Win-loss||Batting average||Bowling average||Difference|
Includes the one-off Super Test between Australia and the World XI
It isn't surprising, then, to find the list of best batsmen against Australia dominated by Indians - there are three in the top four, and four in the top ten. VVS Laxman leads the way with nine 50-plus scores in 22 innings, while Rahul Dravid isn't far behind.
The other aspect that deserves attention in the table below is the scoring-rate of the best batsmen against Australia: seven of the ten have a strike-rate (runs per 100 balls) of close to or more than 60, which gives credence to the theory that attack is the best method against Australia. The only two batsmen who have succeeded with a largely defensive policy against Australia (strike-rate of less than 45) have been Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis - both have excellent techniques and limitless amounts of patience, enabling them to preserve their wickets over long periods at the crease.
|Batsman||Tests||Runs||Average||Strike rate||100s/ 50s|
|VVS Laxman||12||1294||61.61||59.00||4/ 5|
|Rahul Dravid||13||1176||56.00||42.53||2/ 5|
|Kevin Pietersen||10||963||53.50||57.56||2/ 6|
|Virender Sehwag||9||846||49.76||75.94||2/ 3|
|Michael Vaughan||10||959||47.95||58.94||4/ 1|
|Brian Lara||13||1240||47.69||60.31||4/ 3|
|Sachin Tendulkar||10||806||47.41||57.28||2/ 4|
|Chris Cairns||6||515||46.81||68.30||1/ 3|
|Jacques Kallis||12||932||46.60||44.82||2/ 5|
|Nathan Astle||11||811||42.68||53.81||1/ 5|
Both the Indian spinners make it to the top four among the bowlers, but Harbhajan Singh has so far achieved all his success against Australia at home - of his 54 wickets against them, just one has come in Australia. The fact that only four bowlers have less than 30 against them - and seven less than 35 - further indicates how difficult it has been to bowl to the Australian batsmen.
|Bowler||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10WM|
|Shoaib Akhtar||5||20||22.40||36.1||3/ 0|
|Harbhajan Singh||7||54||22.55||43.5||7/ 3|
|Andrew Flintoff||11||42||29.59||52.1||1/ 0|
|Anil Kumble||8||51||29.82||51.4||6/ 2|
|Makhaya Ntini||9||39||31.41||52.6||2/ 1|
|Muttiah Muralitharan||6||37||32.59||61.4||4/ 1|
|Daniel Vettori||11||46||32.76||63.7||6/ 1|
|Merv Dillon||7||27||35.88||55.9||0/ 0|
The spin dilemma
The debate for the Australians going into the Boxing Day Test is the composition of their bowling attack - unleashing four fast bowlers on the Indians is one option, going in with Brad Hogg as the one spinner to back three fast bowlers is the other. Against most teams the one slow-bowler strategy would be a sound one, for it offers variety and an alternative to the captain in case pace doesn't do the job. Against India, though, it isn't as straightforward.
That the Indians have always been very good players of spin bowling is hardly a grand revelation. The table below has the details of just how the best spinners have fared against them over nearly the last three decades.
The one encouragement for Hogg is that the bowler with the highest positive difference between the average against India and the career average bowls the same way Hogg does: Paul Adams has caused a fair bit of bother for the Indians with his left-arm chinaman. In five Tests against them - spread over a couple of series both home and away - Adams has taken 23 wickets, including a best of 6 for 55 in Kanpur, in a match which South Africa eventually lost. His strike-rate against them is an impressive 41.1 balls per wicket, which is far better than his career strike-rate of 66.
For most of the other spinners, though, bowling at the Indians hasn't been much fun. The offspinners Saqlain Mushtaq and John Bracewell have both done well, but scroll down to the bottom of the list and the last four names belong to some of the best in the business. Abdul Qadir couldn't even manage two wickets per Test against them, while Daniel Vettori and Shane Warne both concede 21 more runs per wicket against India than their career average.
|Bowler||Tests v Ind||Wickets||Average||Career average||Difference|
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo.