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Australia brace for tough road test on Pune's debut

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Chappell: A draw would be a good result for Australia (4:44)

Ian Chappell and Raunak Kapoor previews Australia four Test match series against India (4:44)

Match facts

February 23-27, 2017
Start time 0930 local (0400 GMT)

Big Picture

In this era of facts and alternative facts, let's consider one of each regarding the Test series that starts in Pune on Thursday. Australia can regain the No.1 Test ranking by the end of this tour. That is a fact. Australia have a good chance of doing so. That is an alternative fact. In other words, a falsehood. A statement that is backed up by no evidence whatsoever. To do so, Australia would need to win this series either 3-0 or 4-0, and not even Sean Spicer could claim with a straight face that such a scenario is feasible. A different sort of spin will be required to succeed in this series.

Consider some more facts. India have not lost a Test - any Test, anywhere - since August 2015. That is a stretch of 19 consecutive Tests they have either been won or drawn. Admittedly, since they were last defeated, by Sri Lanka in Galle, they have played only one away series, against West Indies last year. At home they are utterly dominant. Of their past 20 home Tests, India have won 17 and drawn three. Last time they lost at home was to England in Kolkata in December 2012. It is so long ago that Yuvraj Singh was still a Test cricketer, but Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja were not.

Australia, meanwhile, have lost their past nine Tests in Asia. If they were a cat, they'd be out of lives, and out of their misery. Until last year, Sri Lanka was the one Asian venue at which Australia always seemed to win. Then they encountered Rangana Herath and were crushed 0-3. Nine men who played in that series are part of the squad in India. What have they learnt from that experience? We are about to find out. What is certain is that R Ashwin, Jadeja and whichever other spinners India choose to play will test Australia's batsmen every bit as sternly as Herath and Dilruwan Perera.

Last time India hosted Australia for a Test series, Ashwin and Jadeja combined for a remarkable tally of 53 wickets. Only one Australian century was scored in the four Tests in 2013 - by Michael Clarke, on the opening day of the series. From then on, Australia's tour was beset by poor techniques against spin, an inability to restrict India's batsmen, internal angst within the squad, and detentions over neglected homework. India only gained momentum, not just winning but annihilating Australia in the process.

Four years later, a very different Australia will try their luck. Peter Handscomb, Matt Renshaw and Shaun Marsh will all play Test cricket in India for the first time - Marsh, the selectors hope, could be Australia's trump card on the spinning pitches, given his success in Sri Lanka - while Josh Hazlewood and Steve O'Keefe will have their first experience of bowling in Tests in India. The hosts, since 2013, have lost legends such as Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni, but appear no weaker for it. They are No.1 in the world, by a distance. Expect that chasm only to grow over the next few weeks.

Form guide

(last five completed matches, most recent first)

India: WWWWW
Australia: WWWWL

In the spotlight

How will Australia's batsmen combat the dual threats of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja? They are the top two Test bowlers in the world, according to the ICC's rankings, and for Australia to have any hope of respectability in this series they will need to find some way to limit their impact. One turns the ball away from the right-handers, one away from the left-handers, and both will be threatening with every single delivery. Their figures are quite remarkable: no bowler in Test history has reached 250 wickets faster than Ashwin, while of Jadeja's 117 Test wickets, 96 have come in India at the average of 20.22. Expect this pair to once again be at the top of the wicket tally.

The oldest man in Australia's squad, Shaun Marsh gets his first chance to play Test cricket in India at the age of 33. The selectors view Marsh as a good player of spin, and is expected to slot in either at No.3 or No.4, effectively replacing Usman Khawaja, whose previous struggles in turning conditions in Asia appear to have cost him his spot. Marsh was a calm presence in Colombo last August, when he was brought in for the third Test against Sri Lanka and made 130, which was Australia's highest score of the tour. With hundreds in three of his past four first-class matches and two of his past three Tests, he should enter this Test with confidence.

Team news

India appear likely to play three spinners, with Jayant Yadav set to join Ashwin and Jadeja. His inclusion looms as the only probable change from the side that beat Bangladesh in Hyderabad.

India (probable): 1 KL Rahul, 2 M Vijay, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 7 R Ashwin, 8 Ravindra Jadeja, 9 Jayant Yadav, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav.

Unless the selectors see such a raging turner of a pitch that they call for a third spinner - in which case Mitchell Marsh could miss out and either Glenn Maxwell or Ashton Agar would be included - Australia's XI appears fairly settled. Matt Renshaw batted with David Warner for a long period at training on Tuesday, and is expected to retain his place ahead of Usman Khawaja. All up, two changes are likely from the side that beat Pakistan at the SCG last month: the Marsh brothers, Shaun and Mitchell, both in at the expense of Khawaja and Hilton Cartwright.

Australia (probable): 1 David Warner, 2 Matt Renshaw, 3 Steven Smith (capt), 4 Shaun Marsh, 5 Peter Handscomb, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Matthew Wade (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Steve O'Keefe, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Josh Hazlewood.

Pitch and conditions

The pitch for the inaugural Pune Test match is so dry that Australia are believed to be considering a third spinner. India's captain, Virat Kohli, said he was expecting the turn to be slow. Like at the Wankhede Stadium, the practice pitches at the MCA Stadium are on the main square. That means a lot of barren patches on the square. There is a good chance of reverse swing.

Stats and trivia

  • The MCA Ground in Pune will be the 25th venue in India to host Test cricket; Australia, by comparison, has had only nine Test venues

  • According to the ICC's Test rankings, the top two batsmen and top three bowlers in the world will all be playing in this Test: Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Josh Hazlewood

  • Unusual as it is for Australia to play two matches in different countries on consecutive days - a T20 in Adelaide on Wednesday and a Test in Pune on Thursday - England once played two Tests on the same day in 1930, one in New Zealand and one in the Caribbean

Quotes

"You hear comments like Harbhajan who expect us to lose 4-0. That's not how we feel. We want to compete here against India. It's going to be a tough series, they've got some quality players in their line-up from 1 to 11. So yes, it's going to be difficult."
Australia captain Steven Smith on the challenges ahead

"Every match and series for us is challenging, we don't see any series as high or low. All teams we had played were good quality teams. Australia is no different. We are not treating this series different from any others in the past."
India captain Virat Kohli on what he expects from Australia