Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here
Michael Clarke has given Australia's batsmen a stern warning that if they fail to capitalise on their starts in India, they will be more culpable than those who fall cheaply in the difficult conditions. The first Test is set to begin on Friday in Chennai on a pitch expected to offer significant turn and reverse swing, and while the Australians have chosen an attack heavy on pace options, India will rely on a bowling line-up replete with spinners.
That provides a unique set of challenges for an Australian batting order that traditionally performs best against quicker bowlers, but Clarke is confident that the surface will allow for plenty of runs in the first couple of days. The Australian batsmen must find a way to push through to triple figures after they managed 11 scores in the 30 to 90 range during the two warm-up games, but no centuries.
"One of the things I spoke to the boys the other day about is that it's more crucial here if you get a start to go on and make a big score," Clarke said. "So if you make a fifty, a sixty, a seventy, and get out, you're more accountable there than the guy who made zero, because it is a really difficult place to start, especially against spin or walking in against the reverse-swinging ball. It's up to the guys who get a start to take the team forward."
To that end, big things will be asked of the top three of Ed Cowan, David Warner and Phillip Hughes. But the real keys are Australia's two most senior batsmen, Shane Watson and Clarke himself, lower down at Nos. 4 and 5. No player in world cricket has made more Test runs in the past two years than the 2247 accumulated by Clarke; nor has anyone bettered his eight centuries in that time, especially given that the list includes three double-tons and one triple-hundred.
Clarke's runs in that time have mostly come at No.5, but that was always with the buttress of Michael Hussey as the next man in. Now Hussey is gone and this is Australia's first Test series without him, leaving Australia's best batsman to be followed by Matthew Wade, the debutant allrounder Moises Henriques and the bowlers. Clarke said he had considered moving up the order but with the top four all openers at one time or another, he felt it made more sense to leave them in place.
"I spoke to Mickey Arthur and Watto (Shane Watson) about that," Clarke said. "Again the result is what we think is best for the team. It can't be about the individual player. Would it be better for me to bat higher? Personally it might be, because I get in earlier, I get to face the new ball. But the decision is nothing to do with me. The same as it's nothing to do with Watto in regards to opening the batting. We think it's the right batting order to help us win this Test match.
"I don't think anybody's restricted to a certain position. I think it's great that everybody in our top four has opened the batting for Australia. We have plenty of options there and it really means we should be very good against new-ball bowling, which is a great positive for our team. You need to definitely look at the success we've just had against Sri Lanka. The order we have right now worked against Sri Lanka. I'm confident we can have success here as well."
But the big difference between the Sri Lankan series and this Indian contest is in the conditions. The Chennai pitch sports not a blade of grass and the Australians felt it was ready to play on several days ago. There is no doubt that it will turn, though Clarke was not convinced it would be ripping from the first morning in the way that some Indian pitches have in the past.
"It's very dry, there's no doubt about it. I think it will spin. I still think it will be good for batting on day one and day two," he said. "I think this wicket is going to be conducive to spin bowling but also to up-and-down bounce off the quicks and I know the ball reverse swings all over India."
That reverse swing factor was a key reason that Henriques won the No.7 position, although his positive intent with the bat, as shown during the warm-up match against India A, also went in his favour. The inclusion of Henriques means Australia will enter the match with four pace options and one spinner, while India could choose as many as four spinners. Despite the likelihood of the pitch assisting the slow men, Clarke said he did not view Australia's selection of their attack as a gamble.
"I don't think it is, I think we've got a really good attack," Clarke said. "We've got three specialist fast bowlers, an allrounder in Moises and then our frontline spinner in Nathan Lyon and a couple of part-timers in David Warner and myself. Personally I think we have covered all bases. I think India's team will be a lot different to ours, but I think we have gone with our strengths and we're backing that when the wicket does deteriorate here, not only will it spin more it will go up and down more and we think reverse swing will play a part as well."
To maximise their chances of gaining reverse swing the Australians have also planned to handle the ball as little as possible when returning it to the bowler in an effort to retain its condition. There will not be one specific man designated for the responsibility, but the best methods of avoiding sweaty hands soaking the ball have been discussed at the team meetings.