“They have a good fighting spirit, no matter the situation of the game. They will always challenge you. Whenever I walk into bat against Australia, I never get easy runs. I always have to work my way out to get runs. And, they play as a unit, they’re always vocal, so there’s a little bit of banter and chat going on. Sometimes, that motivates me a bit more.”
So said Cheteshwar Pujara on Thursday morning, on the eve of his 100th Test match, his admiration and respect for Australian cricket all too obvious. It’s now up to Australia to prove that they are deserving candidates of the high esteem in which they are held by Pujara, and others of his ilk.
The Australian virtues that Pujara extolled were nowhere in evidence in the first of four Tests in Nagpur last week, which the tourists surrendered by innings in less than three days. The fighting spirit visibly ebbed away once they were shot out for 177 on the first day, their vocal chords fell silent as India slowly tightened the screws whilst amassing 400 in their first innings, and there was no sign of the ‘unit’ Pujara spoke about when they lasted just 32.3 overs and 131 minutes in their second knock, which came to a juddering halt at 91.
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Aussie challenge fell flat in Nagpur
It’s a humbling that’s certain to have disturbed, upset and angered Australia. They aren’t used to being at the receiving end of such drubbings, having gotten used to inflicting punishment of this nature on their opponents. To have come to India with grand designs of their first series win in this country since 2004 and finding their challenge falling flat at the first time of asking would have been a bitter pillow to swallow for Pat Cummins’ men. The time for redemption is here and now – during the second Test, Pujara’s 100th, beginning at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi on Friday.
Australia were indubitably hampered by the absence of three first-choice players in Nagpur, with Cameron Green, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood all ruled out through injury. Hazlewood won’t be available for the second Test either, while there is better news so far as all-rounder Green and left-arm paceman Starc are concerned. Green is more crucial to their fortunes than Starc in India; if he is given the all-clear to parade his all-round skills, it will not only add another right-hander to their batting line-up but also allow the brains trust to contemplate a third spinning option alongside Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy.
Inclusion of Green, Starc to give boost
Just how much of an actual difference Green and Starc make remains to be seen, but both are pedigreed performers whose inclusion will, without doubt, strengthen the visitors. It will also give them a pre-match confidence boost, on which they can expect to ride into the game and acquit themselves far better than in Nagpur, when their apprehensions about the pitch proved remarkably unfounded.
Australia find themselves in a slightly better position than India were Down Under towards the end of 2020. In the first Test of that four-match series, a day-night game in Adelaide, Virat Kohli’s team was bowled out in its second innings for 36, India’s lowest score in a Test innings. Kohli flew back to India at the end of that Test for the birth of his first child, and all of Australia and most of the rest of the cricketing world believed India would be in hiding to nothing for the rest of the campaign. As it turned out, India staged the mother of all comebacks, roused by Ajinkya Rahane’s man-management skills and a commonality of purpose to pull off an against-all-odds 2-1 series triumph.
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India high on confidence at home
Cummins’ side can draw inspiration from that soul-stirring campaign, though they won’t find India in a charitable or generous mood. At home, India are a tremendously confident side, evidenced by just two losses since 2013 – to Australia in 2017 (Pune) and England in 2021 (Chennai). It’s not that they don’t travel well, but at home, they have cracked the formula for sustained success through their strong batting line-up, a formidable new-ball pair (even in Jasprit Bumrah’s absence) and a high-quality spin triumvirate that also is exceptionally well equipped with the bat. The depth in India’s batting proved the difference between a lead of 75 and their eventual 223 in Nagpur, with both Jadeja and Axar making impressive half-centuries.
Will Virat, Rahul regain lost touch?
The return from injury of Shreyas Iyer, who averages 56.72 from seven Tests, should bolster a batting line-up that was shored up by Rohit Sharma’s ninth hundred in Nagpur, but that was otherwise highly disappointing. KL Rahul, Pujara himself and Virat Kohli all fell for low scores, adding to the pressure on them imposed by a string of ordinary scores for a while now. The clamour for Rahul’s head is growing by the minute, and his namesake Rahul Dravid, the head coach, and Rohit can’t be expected to keep sticking by him if he doesn’t return the faith. Especially with the gifted Shubman Gill snapping at his heels, Rahul could be on borrowed time if he doesn’t make this Test count.
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Kohli has been without a Test ton since November 2019, and returns to his home ground for a Test match for the first time since the Virat Kohli Pavilion was unveiled in September 2019. The former skipper had an extended session at nets on Wednesday afternoon, zooming in to the ground on his Porsche before his teammates arrived from the hotel by bus, batting for 45 minutes under the watchful eyes of Dravid and batting coach Vikram Rathour, and zooming back home before his colleagues left the ground. He hasn’t been able to translate his white-ball pyrotechnics in the last five and a half months to meaningful Test runs, though like Pujara, he too loves the Australian attack and generally finds means to raise the level of his play.
Multiple issues for hosts to address
Despite their powerhouse display in Nagpur, India still have several issues to address, which embattled Australia must find a daunting proposition. The visitors don’t need a miracle, yet, to stay afloat in this series, but they don’t need one, truth to tell. All they have to do is be themselves, trust their games and defences, be bold and proactive and not allow India’s spinners to settle down. Sounds easy enough on paper, doesn’t it?