Few big names in series, but many an opportunity
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But times have changed. This Australian side has arrived in India almost respectful, they are speaking of challenges and there hasn't been a word yet from the Warne-McGrath school. Maybe they realise they don't have the arsenal but it isn't very Aussie to slip up on the swagger. Wizards don't do suspenders.
But just as this is the least intimidating Australian side to visit India in recent times they will be relieved to know that up against them is one of the weakest Indian bowling sides in the last couple of decades. Since Anil Kumble arrived there hasn't been a weak Indian bowling side at home so we are going back a fair distance. This is a bowling side that has been out-bowled by England a couple of months ago, out-spun in fact. Even when Derek Underwood and later Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds won England a couple of games, India had spin bowling of equal, or superior, pedigree.
And so this series runs the risk of being defined by who isn't in it. No Dravid, no Laxman, no Zaheer and even a little uneasiness about Tendulkar; no Ponting, no Hussey, no Lee let alone Gilchrist, Hayden, Warne and McGrath. But don't let that worry you because new stars must emerge to replace old ones as those giant names did those that walked before. And that is why I see this as a series of opportunity. There are some wonderful young players on either side who could step out of the shadows and into the arc-lights.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have already used up a fair bit of blog space and a substantial amount of airwaves. And, yes, a bit of newsprint. At number 3 and 5 they have different roles to play; dare I say, even if in slightly hushed tones, the roles that Dravid and Laxman played. Pujara to Dravid seems a possible mapping; they are men of similar tastes, preferring solidity to flashiness, understatement to the brash announcement, more likely to feature in the sports section than in the glossy commercial supplements. After 9 tests Pujara has 761 to Dravid's 679 countered by the fact that Dravid had played two more tests overseas. It is not a dissimilar beginning.
But by this stage Dravid had just made his 148 and 81 at Johannesburg, a critical event in his development for he embarked on a wonderful run of scores thereafter. For Pujara this is an opportunity to effect a similar take-off though some might argue that his scores against England point to that already.
By contrast Virat Kohli has had a slower beginning with 891 from 14 tests @38.7. You would have expected those numbers to be better as you would have with Laxman whose record at an equivalent time was even less impressive: 405 runs @28.92 and his first test century was still some distance away. As individuals Kohli and Laxman would seem to come from different planets but I suspect there is similar steel within. Laxman discovered himself, in spite of that 281, in the lower middle order and adapted his game remarkably. I believe Kohli can to and I will be looking forward to seeing how he bats with the second half of the order in this series.
The opportunities for Australia are strewn around rather more but my eyes would be on the faster bowlers. I have long been an admirer of Peter Siddle's work ethic and his unflagging determination and I believe it was his spell late on the second day in Melbourne, and early on the third, in 2011 that played a big part in influencing the series. But I will be watching out for James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc and I believe they can draw inspiration from the past; not necessarily from their own countrymen but from two young West Indian bowlers who came here with a lot of promise but not much else. By the time Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall had left India in 1974-75 and 1979-80, they were different cricketers, ready to become a menace for the rest of the world. Those are big names but all big names start small.
Australia come to India with a far more satisfying record than one their hosts possess. And they will be aware that the pressure will be firmly on India to win. In a sense it reminds me of what Ajit Wadekar did in 1993 when he took on an Indian side that, in his words, had forgotten how to win. His recipe was to prepare rank turners against England. It may have seemed short-sighted but it delivered to the young Indian players, the awareness that they could win. In the days ahead India didn't win much overseas but at least they won at home. Now India need to remind themselves that they can win against competition that is resolute and skilled. The turner might be one way of doing it.
India start favourites but they have more to lose.
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