Shaken Australia face Test reality
A strange thing happened at the Mohali cricket ground on Wednesday. An Indian player gave a press conference. Over the past three days it has felt like there has been only one team in town. On Monday, David Warner, Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke all spoke to the media: Arthur and Clarke on the suspension of four players for a disciplinary breach, Warner on other issues. Shane Watson was bailed up by journalists as he checked out of the team hotel.
On Tuesday, James Pattinson fronted up to speak of his contrition at forgetting his homework. Back in Australia, Pat Howard explained Cricket Australia's support of the team management's drastic move in Mohali, and in doing so inadvertently added fuel to the fire surrounding Watson's departure. Later that night, Watson landed in Sydney and was again mobbed by a press pack. On Wednesday, Clarke gave his official pre-match press conference.
And so did India's debutant batsman Shikhar Dhawan.
Oh, that's right. India are here too. The past three days have been so chaotic for the Australian camp that it was easy to overlook the reality of a Test match starting on Thursday. A Test match that Australia must win to have any chance of retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The challenge for Clarke and Arthur is to ensure their men are switched off from the controversy of the homework saga and switched on to their on-field jobs and how to beat India.
By their own hand, they will do so with a team lacking its vice-captain, its best bowler, another bowler who took five-for last time at this venue, and the main backup batsman, who was otherwise certain to come in for this Test. As bad luck would have it, they will also most likely be without their first-choice wicketkeeper through injury. There will be no official vice-captain to replace Shane Watson, although Brad Haddin will probably serve as a de facto deputy to Clarke.
It is, to put things mildly, less than ideal. One Indian journalist jokingly suggested that perhaps the batting coach Michael di Venuto could be called in to the side. After all, 25,000 first-class runs is a pretty good qualification for a baggy green, and he only retired last year.
Before the squad left for India it was clear this tour would be Clarke's biggest challenge as captain. This Mohali Test will unquestionably be his toughest task of the trip. Apart from the self-imposed stripping of personnel, the team needs to find a way to bounce back from its tenth-biggest loss in Test history. This is a squad that has been slipshod on and off the field and has had its failings aired publicly, yet Clarke must refocus his men away from all of the off-field issues.
But this match does provide an opportunity. When the touring squad was chosen, Steven Smith appeared about as likely to play a Test as Mickey Arthur. Now he has a chance to show what he has learnt since his last Test incarnation two years ago. Phillip Hughes was almost certain to be axed but now will get a reprieve. Xavier Doherty and Nathan Lyon will probably be tested in tandem. Mitchell Starc is back. Clarke has carried a hefty burden since Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey retired. It will be fascinating to see how Clarke rallies his men here.
"The reality is it's a different team now in regards to experience," Clarke said. "When you lose so many experienced players it takes time to build that up. With Ricky's retirement and Michael Hussey's retirement, more than anything I think those two players as friends of mine led by example. We had those guys to talk to a player, to show the younger players how to train, how to go about their work. They were great players for a number of reasons and not just about their performance."
Clarke has made a point of telling his men that they don't need a 'c' or 'v-c' next to their name to be a leader in this young and inexperienced group. The next five days in Mohali provide a chance for some of the same players from the Hyderabad thrashing and some new ones to show what they are made of. To see if the off-field issues have pulled them closer together or driven them apart. The signs at training have been good. The vibe has been upbeat.
Of course, the likely outcome is short-term pain for what Clarke and Arthur hope will be long-term gain. But after Hyderabad, losing by less than an innings would be a step up. A draw would feel like a win. A win would make this one of the most remarkable weeks in Australia's Test history. Now to see what those Indians have been up to while all of this was happening.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here