February 10, 2013

Spin could be Australia's Achilles heel in India

Picking a second spinner to partner Nathan Lyon, and how to bat on turning tracks will be the big questions for the side

The clash between India and Australia promises to be a classic battle between spin and pace and experience and youth.

Australia's great strength is their hit-man squad of fast bowlers, who will be confronted by an experienced Indian batting line-up. How the young quicks cope with the conditions will play a big part in deciding the series, and it could also shape Sachin Tendulkar's immediate future. A good series might see him carry on in Test cricket, but another poor showing like the one he had against England may prompt him to retire.

Australia will be comforted by the success Jimmy Anderson had in India, and they will prefer to play three fast bowlers: Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc will be the first picks, and James Pattinson, if he is deemed ready, is likely to be preferred over Mitchell Johnson as the third. But that means Australia will be going in with two bowlers - Siddle and Pattinson - who haven't played any long-form cricket in over a month.

This summer Starc has had consistent success with late movement into right-hand batsmen at a lively pace - a delivery that the highly dangerous Virender Sehwag is most uncomfortable against. His opening partner Gautam Gambhir is, like most batsmen, vulnerable to the away-swinger early on.

Gambhir will be a prized early wicket, because he can attack spinners. Australia will be flustered if he gets on top of Nathan Lyon, who is a steady offspinner - no Graeme Swann, but tidy nonetheless.

However, none of Australia's other spinners has made a mark so far. Choosing the second spinner will be crucial. They may look to cover two bases by using Glenn Maxwell as a second spinner who can add some valuable middle-order runs. India should look to attack him from the outset to dent one of his great strengths - confidence.

If the Indian pitches for the series are raging turners, the other option would be to use medium-fast allrounder Moises Henriques as a third seamer and Xavier Doherty as the second frontline spinner.

Other than not having top-class spinners, Australia's most glaring weakness is batting against quality spin. If their batsmen were facing a traditional Indian side, full of wily spinners, it would have spelt trouble for them, but against this team, which is still trying to decide on its best attack, they will feel they have a chance.

The Australian batting order contains two areas of contention: who will open and where will Michael Clarke bat?

Shane Watson's return to top form in ODIs suggests he'll open with the ultra-aggressive David Warner. That is Australia's best opening combination and it lines up the batting order correctly, with Clarke at No. 4, where he's best suited. Clarke is the best player of spin in the Australian side, so he can't afford to bat any lower than No. 4, otherwise the Indian spinners could have the upper hand by the time he arrives at the crease. With Watson opening, it's likely Australia will have some runs on the board before Clarke has to face the spinners. That makes him a much more dangerous proposition.

That leaves the ungainly but highly effective Phil Hughes at No. 3 and opens up a spot for Usman Khawaja at No. 5. This will be a big test for Khawaja, as he is a bit leaden-footed to start with against spinners, but Australia have to unearth some young batsmen, especially in the middle order. Matthew Wade will bat at No. 6, with Maxwell coming at 7.

The make-up of India's attack will give a clue to how they propose to dismantle the Australian batting. As Australians traditionally play legspin better than the left-arm orthodox variety, I suspect India will choose two left-arm spinners to partner offspinner R Ashwin.

The type of surfaces the four Tests will be played on will have a big part in shaping the result. I expect the pitches to favour spin rather than pace. If that's the case, India will be favourites to win, but only if they have mentally recovered from being beaten by England.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist