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Why India's bowlers are a threat in Australia, for a change

Jasprit Bumrah races to greet his teammates after tearing through England's middle order Getty Images

Adam Gilchrist is talking about their ability to rip through batting line-ups. Damien Fleming believes it is "as impressive a bowling attack as India have ever brought to Australia". Virat Kohli is feeling good about "a great bowling attack" that has the ability to "pick up 20 wickets in every Test we play". VVS Laxman is marvelling at four or five bowlers who can "bowl real pace, and generate movement and bounce". All of a sudden all the guns are trained at India's batting. It is as though a first series win in Australia is guaranteed if India's batsmen can put on 350 to 400 in their first innings in Australia.

There is reason that most experts, fans and players are excited. After all, India have taken 20 wickets in all but two Tests this year. Indian bowlers have taken the second-most wickets this year, at the fourth-best average and third-best strike-rate. There is real cause for optimism there, but before you assume the bowlers will definitely win India the series if the much-maligned batsmen do their job, indulge in a little Statsguru exercise.

Look at the record of all the bowlers who have ever bowled in Australia. Limit it to those with a minimum of 2000 balls in the country. Sort the list by worst averages. Take out the part-time offspinner Carl Hooper from the top. You have Ishant Sharma at No. 1 and R Ashwin at No. 3. Two of the pivotal members of this bowling attack are among the three worst specialist bowlers to have ever bowled 2,000 balls in Australia. Or that's what the numbers say. They average 62 and 55. Ishant gets a wicket every 17-and-a-half overs; Ashwin 15-and-a-half. Their economy rates are close to 3.5 an over.

Mohammed Shami averages 36, but has bled runs at 4.24 to the over. Umesh Yadav averages 44, and concedes 4.64 runs per over. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has 1 for 168 from his only Test there. Three other specialist bowlers have not bowled in Australia. It is the one place where India really needed a seam-bowling allrounder and they don't have one.

In this century, visiting bowlers have paid 47 runs for each wicket in Australia, five more than the second-most expensive place on that list, India. Even Pakistan's bowlers, known for their quality and adaptability, average over 50 in Australia since 2000. The difference between the averages of home and away bowlers has been the starkest in Australia: 17.8 to 12.41 in South Africa and 11.26 in India, the only three countries where the home bowlers' average has been better than the visitors' by a margin of 10 or more runs per wicket.

No wonder Australia have the best win-loss ratio at home this century.

Why such anticipation around India's bowlers then, in a country that has proven to be the most difficult to adjust to for visiting bowlers unless they happen to represent South Africa? Nearly everybody in this attack has failed in Australia previously, but apart from carrying a new threat in the form of Jasprit Bumrah, India go with a much fitter bowling attack. Almost everybody is an improved bowler since India's last tour of Australia in 2014-15.

A recent issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly has used Cricviz data to analyse fast bowlers of the last two years, starting October 2016. In a Venn diagram for pace, accuracy and movement, two of this current Indian attack - Bumrah and Shami, alongside Mohammad Amir and Kagiso Rabada - fall in the holy centre of all three. Ishant, who has extracted the most average movement over the last two years, is also No. 8 on the metric for accuracy, with 40% of his deliveries landing on a good length and line. He is joined by Bhuvneshwar in that intersection for accuracy and movement. Umesh, who might yet have a role to play in Australia, sits alongside Mitchell Starc in the intersection for pace and movement.

Then again, none of these Indian bowlers has bowled in Australia in the last two years. The soft outfields, the high temperatures, the unyielding surfaces and the Kookaburra ball will all be a big challenge. Shami and Umesh will have to eliminate the straight ball they bowl often, which they can get away with on pitches with movement or slowness. Bhuvneshwar will have to maintain his pace through the day. Ishant might have to challenge the batsmen more often to make the decision whether to play or not. Bumrah will be the key bowler after he has shown his ability to adapt in South Africa and in England.

This is the first time this unit is going to Australia in collective good form, which is why you should watch against being too harsh on Ashwin's record.

The list of poor bowling numbers in Australia is an instructive one. Muttiah Muralitharan, arguably the greatest offspinner ever, has worse figures than Ashwin although he didn't bowl as much in the country. Harbhajan Singh has done way worse, the Australian Greg Matthews is marginally worse, and Graeme Swann only marginally better.

Australia is a fingerspinners' graveyard. It doesn't help to be part of a bowling unit that has let the game go even before you are brought into the attack. One of the main reasons why Moeen Ali has much better numbers against the same Indian batsmen at home than in India, where the ball turns a lot more, is that the England quicks are much more effective at home, and Moeen gets to bowl when the pressure is on. In India, he has to build that pressure himself. Ashwin, who rediscovered himself as a bowler when dropped in Australia four years ago, should benefit from the collective improvement in the bowling group.

One big reason for optimism, though, still has to be the fallout from the Cape Town Test earlier this year. To be bowling at a collapse-prone batting unit missing two of the best Test batsmen in the world, Steven Smith and David Warner, is a great chance for these bowlers to make a mockery of their past numbers. This is the bowlers' version of the 2003-04 tour, when Australia missed Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne for the whole series, and Jason Gillespie for parts of it. The batsmen scored six centuries and averaged 47. While the batting only meant India drew that series, if the bowlers can produce their own version of those numbers, India could go one better.