Australia bank on IPL experience
Australia arrived in India hoping for a hat-trick of ODI series wins here but are aware that they have arrived with perhaps the least experienced side of the past two decades. At their first press conference, though, the new captain-coach combination of George Bailey and Steve Rixon stressed on the one advantage previous touring sides lacked: a familiarity with Indian conditions and players, thanks to the T20 phenomenon that is the IPL and Champions League.
The 14-member squad has a combined experience of 627 ODI caps going into the series, less than the combined caps of India's three most experienced cricketers in the squad: MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina. However, Australia did have five representatives in Sunday's Champions League final - Shane Watson, James Faulkner, Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Coulter-Nile - as opposed to just two from India's squad.
While the IPL, and its extension, the Champions League, has leveled the playing field somewhat, Bailey sought to downplay the importance of any perceived advantage. Bailey, who along with coach Steve Rixon has been a part of the Chennai Super Kings set-up, were both present at the team's first media interaction. Both Bailey and Rixon have worked closely with the likes of Dhoni, Raina, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
"One of the great things about IPL over the years is we have played in a lot of grounds against the best players," The Australian captain said. "All of us have played with and against a lot of the Indian players and vice-versa. We know a lot of strengths and weaknesses, a lot about personalities.[There are] some advantages for both the teams, so [there are] some areas to try and exploit."
Having been a part of the Pune Warriors set-up, Callum Ferguson, who has come in for injured Michael Clarke, and Aaron Finch would know more than a thing or two about Yuvraj's game. So will all-rounder Moises Henriques' close proximity with Virat Kohli, Jaydev Unadkat and Vinay Kumar, after being a part of the Royal Challengers Bangalore set-up last season.
"Having been involved in Champions League Twenty20, we have seen the likes of Suresh Raina [and] the way he is playing," Rixon said. "We have seen the likes of Dhoni [and] the way he is playing, and also Ashwin. We still have to be able to combat that. We have got plenty of hard work to do. The advantage, as George rightly said, is we have got to see them regularly now. We have got more [of a] chance of actually combating that."
"A lot more of the Indians would have played in that tournament (Champions League). That is the advantage of having everyone playing. We have been fortunate to have five of them playing. We are in a reasonable position. End result is the guys who have not been playing a lot of cricket, [we can] get them up and ready leading into the T20 and seven ODIs. Once that happens, we are ready for the contest."
It is this familiarity with the conditions that might work in favour of the Australians in the battle between the top two ODI sides in the world. Stressing that "combating those players" who they know very well is important, Rixon was looking forward to taking the chance of displacing India from the top of the rankings chart.
"That is the character of this team. At the end of the day, we obviously sit back and want to be part of that No. 1 team," Rixon, who has taken charge of the squad temporarily after Darren Lehmann returned home, said. "To look at the tournament, not just a tournament but a chance to be No. 1 in the world in one of the three formats, it is very important for the players, very important for the coaching staff, and very important for CA (Cricket Australia)."
After arriving in Mumbai on Saturday night, the nine players were involved in a light warm-up session on Sunday afternoon, and had their first full training session on Monday morning ahead of the lone Twenty20 to be played in Rajkot on October 10. Before leaving for Rajkot Tuesday evening, the Australians, who will be joined by the five CLT20 stars, will have one last session in Mumbai tomorrow morning.
Both Bailey and Rixon realised it was a monumental task to repeat the 2007 and 2009 feats and surpass India as the top ODI team in the world, especially with a young team under a young leader. Add to that the absence of Michael Clarke, and the top ranking appears like a distant dream, at least at the start of the series. So what does Clarke's absence mean for the Australian team? "You take Dhoni out, that probably answers your question," was Rixon's tongue-in-cheek reply.
Top ranking aside, the series, sandwiched between two Ashes campaigns, and criticised as ill-timed by former Australia skipper Ian Chappell, has been billed as one that would act as a stepping stone towards Australia's 2015 World Cup campaign. At the same time, some are hoping that consistent performances over the next three weeks in India would put some of the fringe players, including Bailey, in with a chance of earning an Ashes call-up. Bailey, however, preferred to put the Ashes thoughts on the backburner. "I think it is [a stepping stone] towards the 2015 World Cup," Bailey confirmed.
"We have got some guys here who have been in the Ashes side and some guys who will be pushing for the Ashes side. To be honest, [the Ashes] is a month away. Eight games here is a long way to go. We have got a round of first-class matches to go [through] back home, so a lot go through before we start our focus on the Ashes. There's plenty of guys back in Australia who are already starting their focus on the Ashes. As far as this tournament goes, more focus is on the preparation for the 2015 World Cup."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo