India and Australia are all set to resume their rivalry in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy when the teams face-off in the first of the four Test matches at Adelaide starting Thursday, December 17.
India announced their playing XI for the first Test on Wednesday. While Prithvi Shaw was chosen as Mayank Agarwal’s opening partner ahead of Shubman Gill and KL Rahul, Wriddhiman Saha pipped Rishabh Pant for the wicket-keeper batsman’s post.
Australia, on the other hand, are sweating over the fitness of Steve Smith ahead of the first Border-Gavaskar Trophy Test. Smith has been battling a sore back. They also have massive issues at the top of the order. While David Warner and Will Pucovski have been ruled out of the opening Test, Joe Burns has been in miserable form.
Not the ideal way for the hosts to go into the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Still, Australia will fancy their chances considering their impeccable record in Day-Night Tests at home. Over the course of the four Tests though, the battle could be quite even considering India are no pushovers.
Here are three player battles that could decide the fate of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy
#1. Steve Smith vs Mohammed Shami
Steve Smith kicked-off the contest against India in the best possible fashion (worst in case of India), with consecutive hundreds off 62 balls in the first two ODIs.
He couldn’t replicate his success in the T20Is. Ironically, that is a danger sign for India, as Smith would be hungrier for runs. Smith has an exceptional record in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The former Aussie skipper has scored 1429 runs in 10 Tests against India at an average of 84.05 with seven hundreds.
If you look at his record against India at home, it is ominous for the visitors. In 4 Tests during the 2014-2015 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, he smashed 769 runs in four Tests at a sterling average of 128.16. Undoubtedly, Indians have a mental block against Smith.
Under normal circumstances, one would have expected Jasprit Bumrah to be the one taking on Smith in the battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. However, the pacer just hasn’t been himself in the last two tours. He lacked bite in New Zealand, and has failed to impress so far in Australia.
As such, India would be looking to Mohammed Shami to tackle the massive Smith threat. The 30-year-old Bengal pacer is the most experienced fast bowler in the Indian team. More significantly, he has improved his game tremendously over the last couple of seasons.
Shami has the ability to deliver key breakthroughs at the start of the innings. With applying saliva banned due to COVID-19, it remains to be seen if they can get the old ball to reverse, an art he has mastered.
Shami has a credible record in Australia in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, having claimed 31 wickets in seven Tests with two five-wicket hauls. With his experience and versatility, he could be the one to challenge Smith’s supremacy in the Test matches.
#2. Cheteshwar Pujara vs Josh Hazlweood
India’s No. 3 Cheteshwar Pujara has a tough act to follow. During India’s previous visit to Australia for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, he was exceptional with 521 runs in four matches at an average of 74.42. He also had three centuries to his credit, and literally carried the batting on his shoulders.
Since that tour though, Pujara has been nowhere near as prolific. In fact, in nine Tests since India last visited Australia, the Saurashtra batsman has only scored 414 runs in nine Tests at an average of under 30.
The 32-year-old does not play limited-overs cricket for India anymore, which means he hasn’t played any international cricket since the Christchurch Test earlier this year.
Despite the handicaps though, Pujara will be expected to raise his game as the latest edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy gets underway. He is, after all, one of the seniormost members of the side now.
Even with Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc in the side, India are expected to face a stern test from Josh Hazlewood in the battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Line and length bowlers have often troubled impatient Indian batsmen in the past.
With Cummins and Starc likely to give little away, India might look to take on Hazlewood. It will be a plan fraught with danger though.
The better choice will be for Pujara to blunt him out of the attack, like he did with most bowlers in the 2018-19 Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Hazlewood had a middling series back then with 13 wickets at an average of over 30.
The 29-year-old though is a much more versatile and dangerous bowler than he was two years ago. He should be up for the Pujara challenge.
#3. Ajinkya Rahane vs Nathan Lyon
With Virat Kohli unavailable after the Adelaide Test, there will be additional responsibility on Ajinkya Rahane on two fronts. He will be leading the side from the second Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Secondly, he will also be expected to raise his game as a senior batsman.
Rahane has a decent record in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia. In eight Tests, the 32-year-old has 616 runs to his name at an average of 44. However, the Mumbai batsman only has one hundred to show for his efforts Down Under, which will have to change this time round.
The experienced middle-order batsman looked good during India’s previous visit to Australia, but only had 217 runs to show for his efforts with a best of 70.
Among the current Indian Test batsmen, Rahane is one of the most fluent players of spin. Hence, tacking the enormous threat of veteran off-spinner Nathan Lyon should be one of his chief priorities.
Lyon has a brilliant record in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy at home. In 11 Tests against India, he has picked up 51 wickets with four five-wicket hauls.
The mistake India have committed in the past has been allowing him to settle in. Once in the zone, Lyon has proved to be lethal, running through the Indian batting more than once.
Of course, it would be foolhardy to expect Rahane to go out on an all-out attack against the heavily under-rated 33-year-old, who has 390 Test scalps from 96 matches.
At the same time, Rahane will have to find a middle-ground and unsettle Lyon to reduce his efficiency to the lowest possible level in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Easier said than done, but isn’t that what Test cricket is all about? Finding the right balance between risk and playing in the safe zone.