Sides unsettled, but India start favourites
A new-look Australian side visits India at a time when the hosts are desperately seeking a boost in Test cricket after having lost three major series, including at home against England, in a span of one and a half years. Former captains Rahul Dravid and Ian Chappell join Harsha Bhogle to discuss what could be in store.
Excerpts below. The numbers in the brackets are the duration for each segment
The series is missing several senior cricketers, who played in the last India-Australia series in 2011-12. (1.34 - 3.43)
Rahul Dravid: Some of the people who have been integral to India-Australia series over the last decade and a half will be missing, on both sides. It'll be different from that point of view. An India-Australia series will still be high profile. It'll probably be a series that will throw up new faces, and both sides will hope they'll be faces that will go on to play and sustain a rivalry for the next decade or so.
Ian Chappell: One of Australia's big problems at the moment is that they are not producing good batsmen. Most of our debutants of late have been in their late 20s, even 30s. So that's a major problem for Australia. There might be one or two players who might make a name for themselves but I would be much happier if there were some good young batsmen coming through or, in fact, some good young batsmen on this tour.
Are Australia looking very unsettled on this trip to India? (3.44 - 5.38)
IC: I don't think there is any doubt that they are unsettled. But there is a lot of malarkey spoken about Shane Watson [not bowling]. Watson is an opening batsman as far as I am concerned, even when he is fully fit. I won't be using him much as a bowler. I'd be using him as a change bowler. He's there to score runs at the top of the order, as far as I am concerned. There is absolutely no doubt about where he should bat. He should open. If David Warner is fit, then Warner and Watson are the opening combination. But yes, Australia are very unsettled.
I'm sick to death of hearing how the guys are training the house down, how they've never looked better in the nets. I've never held much store over what happens in the nets. You never get any runs, you never get any wickets in the nets. Make them out in the middle and that means something.
A bigger opportunity for India if Australia are weaker than England… (5.40 - 7.27)
RD: Australia are less experienced than England in the batting department and especially in the spin-bowling department. Australia have some quality fast bowlers. They have come here with bowlers who can make an impact if the conditions suit them. I can't see that happening. I can't see India preparing tracks that will help the Australian fast bowlers. England came here with a couple of really good spinners, guys who had played over 40 Tests, over 200 wickets each, had played in these conditions before, had success in India before. As soon as India prepared turning tracks, England were able to capitalise and their spinners outbowled India.
I am not sure Australia will have that kind of quality and experience to be able to do that, unless they can unearth a brilliant cricketer from the ones we have seen. People like Nathan Lyon and Xavier Doherty, we've seen them before. There's a new left-arm spinner they're talking about [Ashton Agar], who has played a couple of games. Unless he shows us something unique, Australia might struggle to get India in trouble even on turning tracks in these conditions.
Should Australia play three seamers and one spinner? How big a problem is the absence of a quality spinner? (7.28 - 9.59)
IC: They are going to have to pick their best bowlers and that'll be three quickies and one spinner. They'll probably start with Siddle and Starc. They might go with Henriques and then use a batsman who can bowl a bit, like Maxwell. They might go that way, but it won't surprise me if they go with three quicks and just the one frontline spinner, and then they'll have Maxwell in reserve as a second spinner.
What went on in the warm-up games told us everything. The fact that Agar, who went there to get some experience, bowl to the team in the nets… that they kept him on - you had the feeling that if Agar had got four or five wickets in that second warm-up match, they probably would have played him in the Test match. You talked about uncertainty before. That, to me, is the definition of uncertainty.
They seem a bit concerned about Lyon. The big concern has been that he had a couple of opportunities to bowl Australia to victory in the fourth innings; he couldn't do it in Adelaide against South Africa and he then struggled in Sydney against the Sri Lankans, and that has got them a little bit worried. So I am not sure how they're going to go. I think Lyon is a decent bowler but he seems to go for quantity of deliveries rather than quality in those situations - when it's the fourth innings and the feeling is that he's got to bowl Australia to victory. He seems to rush everything, and that to me seems to have created a few problems for him. He just needs to settle things down a little bit.
Are the Indian spinners good enough? How many should they play? (10.00 - 11.32)
RD: I generally like to play a balanced side. If you've got two good spinners and they can't do the job on a turning track, I don't know how much the third or the fourth guy is going to do. But India, having picked Jadeja now as a floating allrounder, I think they might play three spinners, but I do hope they play two quicks as well. Reverse swing can be a factor in India. I just like the balance of it - Jadeja batting at No. 7, Dhoni at 6, Ashwin at 8 - they can maybe afford to play three spinners and two fast bowlers. I'd like to see that balance. Going with four spinners and one fast bowler, I'm not a big fan of that. If the track is a square turner, two guys should do the job for you. You are better off having an extra batsman on a track like that.
The return of Harbhajan Singh - should he play in the XI, and is his inclusion an indicator that there aren't too many other options? (11.33 - 12.49)
RD: Ashwin and Ojha didn't bowl particularly well against England, though I think Ojha was India's best spinner against England. As we know, there isn't a lot of spin-bowling talent in India in domestic cricket. If you look around, there hasn't been any young spinner who has stood up and said, "Look, pick me, I'm the next guy and I can deliver for you." In some ways, they have been forced to go back to Harbhajan. It's nice for them to have someone of Harbhajan's experience and quality in the wings, who they can call on to play in the series. He does well against Australia. He has particularly bowled well against them in India. That must have weighed in his favour. Having picked him, I would think they would play him now in the XI, and I guess they should.
Where should Michael Clarke bat? (12.50 - 14.48)
IC: No. 4. The best batsman in your side must bat no lower than No. 4. I don't necessarily agree with the business about your best batsman bats at No. 3. Certainly in Australia that's a bit of a hangover from Bradman.
I always worked on the basis that I'd much rather come in at one for not very many than two for not very many. But I'd certainly rather come in at 2 for not very many than three for not very many. Australia have got out of trouble, even against India, a lot of times after being 3 for 30 or 3 for 40. Clarke, Ponting, it was on that occasion, and Hussey got them out of trouble. Maybe you can get away with it when you've got Ponting at 4 and Hussey at 6. But no way in the wide world should Clarke bat at 5 in this side. Even more reason for it because I am sure India will hit Australia with a lot of spin and Clarke is far and away the best player of spin in the Australian side. So you don't want to come in for not very many with the Indian spinners well and truly on top.
How unsettled are India? (15.59 - 17.15)
RD: India didn't bat particularly well against England as well. There are a few young, inexperienced players. They are talented, and they are good players. Pujara and Kohli have shown they can play. There is a little bit of inexperience. There is that No. 6 position, whether it's Rahane or Jadeja that will play. Even in the bowling department: who partners Ishant, who himself has been in and out of the side due to injury? Is it Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Ashok Dinda? For a large part of the decade, the Indian side almost picked itself except for one or two players.
Is this Sehwag's last chance? (17.16 - 19.25)
RD: He still averages 50 in Test match cricket. That's something to note. He's been having a tough time of late, [but] he scored a hundred against England in Ahmedabad and it is the only Test match India won. There is something to be said for someone who can play the way he does and give him a bit of leeway. But after this, India play three Test series away from home, and Viru hasn't done particularly well away from home in the last four or five series he's played. From that point of view, the selectors will want him to score a few runs, at least at home, so that when he goes to South Africa, he has some runs behind him.
Having Gambhir sitting out is going to put pressure on the Indian selectors as well. He is someone who has gone out and scored a hundred in the side game against Australia. No doubt he is going to score runs in domestic cricket. That's going to put some pressure on Sehwag as well; an experienced batsman sitting out, if he slips up, the selectors have to look back at Gambhir. But India would like him to do well. He is the kind of player who can turn a series in a session at times. So I think they'll persist with him as long as they can.
What about Tendulkar, who has scored a couple of centuries in the domestic season? (19.26 - 22.01)
RD: Tendulkar at 45, maybe with a stump will score a hundred in domestic cricket, he is that good. I'm not knocking domestic cricket in India, but if he puts his mind to it, he'll score runs in domestic cricket in India. There was never going to be a doubt in that. He needs runs as well, early on in the series. There are young batsmen coming through, and if India keep losing consistently, and the senior players don't keep scoring runs, the selectors could be tempted to think, "Look, let's blood some young kids in, we're losing in any case."
IC: In Australia, I think it had a huge effect, everyone worrying about whether or not he'll score his 100th hundred. To me, it consumed the team. I thought it was a huge problem there. If people are going to keep on "Will he or won't he retire? Will he keep his place or won't he keep his place?" - particularly in a place like India, where the individual stars mean a hell of a lot more than in Australia… Australia has a history of moving very good senior players on when the selectors think it is time to make that move. That doesn't happen in India, so I think it's very much a distraction that India can do without.
How big a challenge is this for Michael Clarke and MS Dhoni? (22.02 - 25.40)
IC: Clarke is a very good captain, and he is one of the few advantages I see Australia having. I thought Dhoni started out as a very good Test match captain. What I've seen of him, of late, particularly in that series in England and in Australia, I thought at times he was just going through the motions as a captain, and I felt it was the time for him to move on. Maybe retain the one-day captaincy, but I thought he'd run his race as a Test captain. If he starts going through the motions and putting fielders back and takes the pressure off the Australian batsmen, then he will pay for it. Clarke is a very good captain, and if he gets the opportunity to put some pressure on India and if his bowlers back him up, that could be one of Australia's only advantages - Clarke's captaincy.
RD: You need to produce results, as a player and as a captain as well. In the last three high-profile series, India has lost. This is the fourth one and India will expect Dhoni and the team to start producing results. I've said earlier that he is the right man to lead India at this point, because I'm not really sure India have got an alternative in the short term. But if India keep losing, he could become weary himself, and that could be a problem as well for India. In India, with the kind of attack he has, Dhoni is a better captain because of the kind of bowlers he has and the conditions he plays in. In Australia and England, where India just didn't have the bowling attack to put any pressure, it becomes very difficult for a captain to create any sort of pressure.
I think that is a challenge Clarke may face in this series. The only time Australia won here in 2004 was when Shane Warne backed up the fast bowlers by being able to bottle up one end and not giving too many runs, and keeping the pressure on. But when Australia came subsequently, they always had good fast bowlers, but whether it was Nathan Hauritz, Jason Krejza, whoever came in always leaked runs at the other end. That put a lot of pressure on whoever was the Australian captain then to keep bringing his fast bowlers back on, and at some stage they are going to get tired.
That's going to be Clarke's biggest challenge: how is he going to stem the run flow when his spinners are bowling? If he can find a way to do that, then his fast bowlers become effective. But if he doesn't, the longer the series goes on - and it's a long series in these conditions, it's going to get hotter and hotter in India - Australia might just start wilting.
Who would you pick as a favourite? (25.41 - 26.57)
IC: India have got to start favourites. If it was a normal Indian side with dominant spinners, I'd say they would win in a canter. But I don't think they've got spinners of that ilk at the moment, and that gives Australia a chance. But I have to say, India have to start favourites in this series.
RD: I would agree. It'll be interesting to see the kind of wickets that are produced, especially in Hyderabad and Mohali, two venues that may give the Australian fast bowlers a chance to get some reverse swing going early. If they can get into the middle order and get a couple of their senior batsmen out early at the start of the series, India could be distracted by a lot of things. But India, I think, would still start favourites.
Numbers Game (27.02 - 31.16)
Of the last five series Australia have played in India, in how many of those have the spinners averaged more than 50 runs a wicket?