Tuesday, February 21, 2017

IND v AUS: Batting is Australia"s best chance at success, writes Ian Chappell

Steven Smith during his hundred against India ‘A’ in the warm-up tie. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Steven Smith’s Australian side faces the daunting task of trying to defeat a buoyant Indian side, ably led by Virat Kohli. To put the task into context; in thirteen Tests, Kohli is undefeated as a captain at home. The closest any team has come to victory over a Kohli led side was South Africa’s 108 run loss in the opening Test of their series. That was the first in the thirteen match sequence and what has followed has been a succession of even greater Indian triumphs over increasingly hapless opponents. Australia will need to be mentally tough as well and maintain a high skill level to halt this trend.

Smith’s team has prepared diligently, albeit mostly on specially concocted pitches in Dubai. This raises the question of whether the Australians were better off in the relative comfort of the nets or if it would’ve been wiser to challenge themselves in the highly competitive atmosphere of the Sheffield Shield competition.

In general, nothing beats confidence acquired from making runs or taking wickets in a competitive atmosphere. The Australians might have gained some insights from practicing on spinning pitches in Dubai but until they’re tested out in the middle in the heat of battle, those discoveries are only theories. In addition to whether they can make enough runs to challenge India or keep the home side’s rampant batsmen in check, Australia has three main headaches.

Should they prefer the inexperienced but promising Matt Renshaw over the talented but injury prone Shaun Marsh in the opening position? Given the adjustments Renshaw has made in each successive Test he’s played and his catching ability at first slip, he should get first crack as opener.

If Renshaw is selected, the elder Marsh will then bat in the middle-order. Australia then has to decide whether Usman Khawaja is used to bolster the batting or if they utilise an all-rounder at six. If they opt for an all-rounder is it Mitch Marsh to complement the pace attack or if the preference is for more spin bowling options, do they gamble on Glenn Maxwell? Choosing Maxwell is a risk. He’s like a stick of dynamite — explosive but also capable of detonating prematurely.

Australia’s other concern is Matthew Wade’s wicket-keeping. He’s another risky choice because he’s a flawed gloveman. Choosing Wade is purely a gamble that the runs he could potentially score will exceed those he might concede. The odds aren’t favourable in India as opponents can’t afford to reprieve batsmen of the calibre of Kohli and company. Wade will have his technique regularly tested in India, in the most demanding position for a keeper, standing up to the stumps.

Then there’s the matter of Australia’s batting order. It appears that Smith has made the wise decision to promote himself to number three so that India won’t have a trio of left-handers to attack at the start of an innings. This would be too much of a luxury for R Ashwin, who has a distinct fondness for bowling to left-handers.

This move also has the advantage of separating Australia’s two best players of spin (Smith and Peter Handscomb), while also maintaining a left-right combination through the middle order. That batting line-up gives Australia it’s best chance of success, as well as making Kohli’s job just a little more challenging.

Smith will face his own captaincy challenge, as he wrestles with getting the balance right between when to use pace and when to opt for spin. In Australia he seems more comfortable using pace bowlers rather than spinners.

The penetrative pair of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood will benefit if they’re used in short, sharp spells. It will also help Australia’s cause if both are reasonably fresh when the highly dangerous Kohli first arrives at the crease. If Smith under-uses Nathan Lyon it’ll mean longer spells for the two pace spearheads.

A confident Australian squad has arrived in India after a solid, prolonged preparation in the nets. Maintaining that confidence through a gruelling Test series is a challenge that is rarely met by teams touring India.

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