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Feature

Meticulous Australia must avoid getting punched in the mouth

Their planning has been immaculate, but this isn't just another tour; it's the hardest one in world cricket

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
07-Feb-2023
Pat Cummins was asked at his opening press conference of the tour whether Australia were on a mission to win in India. Whether, like Australian teams of the past, the final frontier theme was being dusted off and rebranded 22 years since Steve Waugh first coined the phrase. His answer was nonchalant.
"We've had some really good tours in last year, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, this is just another one," Cummins said.
Just another one. That's what an India Test tour feels like now to the Australian team in some ways. Despite not touring here for a Test series since 2017, most of the Australia squad and their coaching staff are here every year and sometimes twice. Some were in Nagpur, the site of the first Test, only five months ago for a whirlwind three-match T20I series.
Scott Boland, Lance Morris and Todd Murphy are the only Australians in the squad who have not toured India in some way shape or form. But even Murphy went to the MRF academy in Chennai last year while both he and Boland toured Sri Lanka in 2022.
India as a venue no longer holds the fear of the unknown. Australia know so much that they scrapped playing a tour match, knowing full well it would be a waste of time as it was in 2017.
They know exactly what to expect and have been preparing accordingly since May last year. That included planning for a pre-tour camp in Sydney for the spinners to get out of T20 mode into Test bowling mode, before a specifically designed four-day intense camp in Bengaluru at tailor-made training facilities in Alur.
They flew in local net bowlers, one who mimicked R Ashwin's action, to bowl tirelessly for hours on end to Australia's batters in heavy spinning tracks.
The quicks got the feel of the SG balls in their hands and programmed on their lengths and lines while Australia's fielders worked assiduously on their close catching, knowing how important taking their chances would be in a spin-heavy series.
Each batter has been left to their individual devices to work out a method that will suit them. Proactivity will be at the forefront of their minds but picking the right moments to attack will be key to their success.
Tactically too, they know the lessons of the past. The 2004 team bowled with in-out fields to slow down India's run rate and control the tempo of the game. There are no unknowns for this Australian team. They have planned meticulously.
But everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Australia haven't been punched in the mouth yet, but they've been hamstrung before the fight has begun with best-laid plans thrown into chaos.
Injuries to Cameron Green, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood have thrown several spanners in the works on the eve of the first Test.
They have also hamstrung themselves in some respects. After investing four Test matches in Mitchell Swepson in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year as Nathan Lyon's spin partner, he is now third in line as the selectors remain undecided on whether to pick Ashton Agar or Todd Murphy for one of the most important roles in the Australian team.
Green's potential absence has caused a significant headache too, as it would any team. There is indecision on who replaces him at No.6 due to concerns about the left-right balance of the batting order. For all the meticulous planning, Australia are getting to the line unsure of their best team for conditions they knew were coming.
Their aging openers, Usman Khawaja and David Warner, likely on their last tours of India have also complained of fatigue coming into the series.
The reality is this isn't just another tour. It is the hardest Test tour in world cricket. Since Australia's 35-year drought-breaking win in 2004, only one visiting team has beaten India in a series in India and that was England in 2012.
Australia have played 14 Tests in India since 2004 and won just one. They haven't beaten India in a series anywhere since 2014-15, losing consecutive Border-Gavaskar trophies in 2018-19 and 2020-21 at home.
This is a different Australian team in many ways. Freer, looser, calmer and better. They will point to their success in Pakistan and Sri Lanka as a marker of how far they have advanced as a group.
But as good as the hard-fought 1-0 win in Pakistan was, the subsequent 3-0 triumph by England in Pakistan suggests that series could have been won more easily with some better catching, particularly in Karachi.
The Sri Lanka series too was not quite a triumph. The 1-1 draw gave Australia the best preview possible for what might be presented in India. They succeeded on a raging turner in a lottery of a game in the first Test in Galle, batting proactively and taking their chances just as they did in Pune in 2017. But they failed on a flatter surface in the second Test. They won the toss and lost by an innings despite hundreds from Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith. It was shades of Chennai in 2013 where they posted 380 thanks to a Michael Clarke century after winning the toss and lost by eight wickets.
Australia are likely to qualify for the World Test Championship final no matter the result of this series. But in reality, this is not a series with no consequence for this group. This isn't just another series and they need to avoid getting punched in the mouth.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo