India vs Australia 2017: Ready for a piece of history
The practice match before a crucial Test series is always about more than just warming up. The visitors adapt to foreign conditions, understand the bounce of the pitch and the climate, but underlying every innings and every bowling spell is a deeper sense of foreboding.
For spectators and pundits, it is a promising appetiser before a glorious meal. A new conclusion is drawn whenever a wicket falls. Each time a cover drive is struck from the bat of a visiting batsman, it is determined to be the harbinger of a future double century.
The two teams involved, though, are playing other games as well, hiding both their strengths and weaknesses. When Australia toured England for Shane Warne’s first Ashes series, Allan Border instructed his ace spinner to bowl nothing other than vanilla leg spin during the practice games. His flippers and googlies were deliberately leashed until the first Test.
No practice against spin
Such mental battles continue through the build-up as the teams search for advantages. For example, it must have been decided months ago that the visiting Australians will not be given an opportunity to bat on a turning wicket before the series began.
The pitch laid out for the three-day match against India A at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai was expectedly placid.
Kohli and Kumble know that the main battle in the upcoming series would be between the Indian spinners and the Australian batsmen. Twenty wickets need to be taken and India’s primary assault will be via spin. If Ashwin trips the Kangaroos over, the series inevitably turns in the favour of the home team.
Why then would the visitors be given a chance to get used to a turning ball in the subcontinent? Hand them a track where the ball doesn’t grip and leave them as unprepared as possible.
Visiting batsmen up for the challenge
But not every decision is without a flip side. Batting at Brabourne was easy for the visiting team. On an inert wicket and against a toothless bowling attack, the Australians spent time comfortably at the wicket and the team declared on its own terms at 469/7 in the first innings.
Most batsmen are jittery for the first few overs of a new tour but Steve Smith doesn’t count himself among most others. He has started again where he left off in the last edition of the Border-Gavaskar trophy.
His defence continues to be as solid, his strokes just as sharp. In fact, he is probably even better than he was when he tormented the Indian bowlers Down Under.
Both he and Shaun Marsh posted unchallenged centuries and withdrew from the field. They didn’t give up their wickets trying expansive drives or slog sweeps, but instead retired to make way for their compatriots. The message to the Indians was clear. No matter what the scorecard says, they were still ‘not out.’
The Aussies now go to Pune for the first Test with runs under their belts. They have felt ball after ball hit their bats and watched them fly to the boundary. The mental battle waged by the Indians against the opposition’s batsmen is still evenly balanced; fans will need to wait for Pune to see which way it tilts.
A surgical strike
On this tour of India, the Australians have reinforced their squad with four spinners. Even though most of them are relatively inexperienced, anyone competent in the art of spin can be a handful on a turning wicket.
Extra Cover: Hawk Eye: Ravichandran Ashwin vs Nathan Lyon (Tests)
Fans may remember Nathan Lyon’s nine-wicket haul in his outing at the Feroz Shah Kotla in the previous tour. Bowlers have long memories and the experienced New South Wales bowler would have revisited his last Test to draw some self-belief. However, the Indians would hope his confidence has dented a little after Shreyas Iyer’s onslaught against his bowling over the weekend.
Iyer has been scoring freely in the domestic season for a couple of years now and has also made his mark with the Delhi Daredevils. The Mumbai lad’s unbeaten double century at Brabourne included 27 fours and 6 sixes, smashing Lyon at 5.61 runs an over.
From the perspective of the home team, he was a commando sent on a surgical mission and he successfully laid a minefield under the armoury of the opposition’s bowling. If the line or length of the Australian spinners is a bit shaken when they first come on in Pune, Iyer can take some of the credit.
A spot in the senior team has to be around the corner for the 22-year old. The youngster deserves it.
A piece of history
Nothing more than a draw is expected from pre-tour practice matches these days. Other than the mind games, they are just inconsequential preludes with little actual relevance. This edition of the biennial series too only starts once the two captains shake hands in Pune.
Three of the venues – Pune, Ranchi and Dharamsala – are holding their first international Test matches and how the pitches will play beyond the third day is anyone’s guess. Pune gave us 700 runs recently in the first India vs England one-dayer but Kohli will want a turner. The curator must be under some pressure to deliver.
Only a few days now separate the fans from the first coin-toss. Will the pitch become another player in this series? Will Smith be able to counter Ashwin? Will the Australian spin-quartet match the guile and skill of the Indians?
The answers will be revealed soon enough.
Team managements must be pouring over video recordings at this moment. The Indians will have a plan for every batsman while the Australians will have a plan for every spinner. No weakness can be hidden. All the cards are on the table.
The captains are rivals and the teams are playing for a place in history. May the best one win.