The four Test Australia Vs. India belatedly starts today following the tragic loss of Phil Hughes, 63 not out, felled by a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match two weeks ago. The best tribute to Hughes is to continue with the game in the usual way, remembering him and what he brought to the game. The Aussies have taken the initiative by stating that they will play as they always do. “Good, hard cricket,” said coach Darren Lehmann. “We must play on,” said Michael Clarke during a moving speech delivered at Hughes’s funeral.
On the cricket field, India are moving on without their much vaunted cast of batting superstars. Even MS Dhoni is out of the first Test, recovering from a broken thumb. The Indians are left with a young batting brigade, looking to forge Test careers. India boast short format superstars like Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Shikhar Dhawan, but Test batting in Australian conditions may not be to the liking of these ODI stars. Though young Lokesh Rahul is an interesting inclusion, Virat Kohli (captaining in Dhoni’s first Test absence) and Chestehwar Pujara will be the key to India’s fortunes as the Aussies will come out all guns blazing seeking to rectify their recent 4-0 drubbing in India.
The surprise so far has been the Indian bowling. The two practice outings have seen them run through the opposition batting and they seem to be acclimatising fast. But they have not encountered the regular Australian Test batsmen so far, meaning the Test series will be a different ball game for these bowlers. The fractured warm-up fixture list, owing to Hughes’s passing, will also have done little to help the Indians find any fluency in their game.
It is sad that Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India’s shrewdest and fittest bowler, will miss the first two Tests due to an ankle injury. This means Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron and Mohammad Shami will comprise the three pronged pace attack and their biggest Test, more than taking wickets, will be to last the entire series. With R Ashwin having never succeeded overseas, the spin department looks quite fragile in these conditions. This means the pacers have to bear the brunt and the earlier Kumar returns, the better for India.
The previous India tours, to England and Australia respectively, have been disastrous. The combined 0-8 drubbing haunts this India side and represents one of the worst failings they have suffered overseas in the history of Indian cricket. Dhoni is fortunate he is still the Test captain, though he misses the first Test here. The baton is passed to Kohli, who recently led India to a 5-0 ODI rout of Sri Lanka. Kohli got his first century Down Under in his previous visit here. From being the junior most batsman then, he is the senior most batsman now.
He has to lead the team from the front in the first Test. This means the morale of the Indian batting will revolve around Kohli for the entire series. For them to click, he has to click first – something he emphatically failed to do in England earlier this year. If India can either win or hold strong in the first Test, Dhoni’s return from the second will boost their confidence as well as their chances.
Unlike Dhoni, the Aussie skipper Clarke is back from injury. As a mark of respect, Phil Hughes has been named the 13th man in the Australia team. The Aussies have to encounter not a much vaunted Indian batting line-up this time, but their own tragedy and emotions. With Josh Hazelwood and Shaun Marsh left out, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris will lead the pace attack, supported by Mitchell Marsh. Whilst the Aussies will be hell bent upon scoring a resounding victory, the Indians will be embarking on a new journey with young Test players who, hitherto, have never been tested.
Any positives for India will set the tone for the triangular ODI series along with England that follows as sights set on the forthcoming World Cup. Can India retain the trophy with a new-look side? This is the litmus test.
With all the Aussies wearing Hughes’s shirt number 408, the series will begin with a 63 second applause for Hughes and the word ‘play’ will signal the start of a new era in Australian cricket. The sport will never quite be the same again.
By Venkat Balantrapu