Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
Glenn McGrath loves to make series predictions. This time, all he is willing to concede is that "Australia have a slight advantage." And that is because they have a lethal left-arm pace option in Mitchell Starc. That said, McGrath believes India will be buoyed by their series win in 2018-19 and can fight fire with fire because of their bowlers.
"Umesh Yadav's got raw pace, Mohammed Shami has great control and swings the ball both ways and Bumrah is just class. He has great mental strength. His second and third spells are just as quick as his first," McGrath told select media in an interaction organised by Sony, the broadcasters of the India-Australia series in India. "You have guys who, if on fire, are tough to beat. But on par you have Josh Hazlewood, he bowls in good areas and is tall, strong.
"Then Pat Cummins is the No.1 bowler in the world. He runs in all day, always gives 100 per cent. He gets slightly different angles because of the way he runs in. Then you have left-arm Mitchell Starc. When he gets it right, he can pick four-five wickets at a go. He has got that X-factor. If both teams are bowling at the top of their game, I would probably put Australia slightly ahead only because of the left-hander, which makes a big impact."
India's series win in 2018-19 was as much due to the batting efforts of Cheteshwar Pujara as it was about the bowling. Pujara made 571 runs, including three centuries, India's best for the series. With Virat Kohli set to miss three Tests, due to the birth of his first child, India will depend on Pujara again to set up Tests.
McGrath believes lack of match time and the feel for batting long could "have a big impact" on Pujara and predicted that he might have to work harder for his runs than he did in 2018-19. Pujara is one of two players from the current Test squad to have not played any competitive cricket for over 10 months thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Pujara last featured in the Ranji Trophy final in March and has since had to rely on training sessions with his state team Saurashtra back home in Rajkot. In November, he began training in Dubai with Hanuma Vihari, the other Test specialist, even as the rest of the squad were involved in the final stages of IPL 2020.
"The thing he did so well last time was that he occupied the crease. He spent time in the middle just batting," McGrath said. "He is a kind of batsman who doesn't feel pressure when not scoring runs. That's unique in the modern era where there are batsmen who would want to score runs after one maiden over. Pujara doesn't have that mindset. That helped him last time, allowed him to get a lot of time and just compile runs.
"The fact that he hasn't spent time in the middle, hasn't had lot of long batting time, is going to have a big impact. He will probably have to work harder this series than the last one as he hasn't played any cricket."
That said, McGrath believes adjusting to conditions shouldn't be a challenge for the current batting line-up, unlike in the past where they struggled to adjust to the pace and bounce, because the surfaces have changed character over the years.
"In early days, Indian batsmen weren't used to the extra pace and bounce Australian wickets had," he said. "You wouldn't say there was real fear, but it was not something they were used to. The fear factor was more about pace and bounce. I don't think Australian wickets have the same pace and bounce. But it's still quicker than in India. The last series win will give them a lot of confidence."
Unlike the general vibe in Australia around Kohli's absence - at least among the broadcasters and a few former players - McGrath believes this is an opportunity for the rest of India's batsmen to take ownership of their line-up.
"That first Test is going to be interesting," he said. "That is a day-night Test. India haven't played a day-night Test in Australia. At night, with the sun setting, it will probably start favouring the fast bowlers. It will be about timing, when you are bowling or batting. Virat, if he has to have an impact in the series, will have to make an impact in the only Test he is playing. That will set the tone. Two years back, the first Test win in Adelaide gave them a lot of confidence.
"As far as other batsmen are concerned, Rohit Sharma is a quality batsman who hasn't achieved at the Test level what he should be achieving. Maybe when Virat goes home, he might just step up and show what he can do. You can't just focus on one player. You have Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul. India has a strong batting line-up."