Ind vs Aus, 1st Test preview - Australia set for spin trial against slightly vulnerable India in Nagpur
For all their rich standards and esteemed record in familar conditions, India have never been more vulnerable at home than they seem for this Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
The batting unit led by skipper Rohit Sharma and middle-order stalwarts Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli is experiencing wear and tear, undergoing an evident skill decline which has dented their wings.
The Pujara-Kohli duo, once pillars of great strength and resolve, has gone through a sustained strife at the Test match level. With Pujara, there have been encouraging signs of revival in Edgbaston and Chattogram but he is clearly not the player he was in his pomp, especially versus spin.
That holds true for Kohli, too. Into his fourth year without a Test century, the pandemic realms have coincided with the great batter's unarrested decline. He is averaging shy of 27 from his last 20 Tests since the beginning of 2020 and has never looked more vulnerable at the crease.
Rohit's case is different: his ascent into a Test opener is India's biggest positive but a spree of injuries resulting in lack of regular appearances approaching the back half of his thirties poses a scenario wherein the cricketer may no longer be the force that could withstand an attack of Australia's gumption and skill over four Tests at four different venues.
The trio of Rohit at the top, followed by Pujara and Kohli in the middle is the engine room of Indian batting. It's where they find their breathing space for the rest of the top six, which is more pertinent a fact now than it was a month or so back, when India still had their biggest game-changer Rishabh Pant and an in-form Shreyas Iyer available for the opening Test in Nagpur.
Walking on thinner ice than ever with their batting, India would likely entrust their spin strength and the famed troika of allrounders to propel them past the Aussies on an expected turner in the city of oranges. With R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel all capable of running through oppositions and providing cushion to the batting unit, India might not be as wary of inclining towards a sharp turning deck as they would've been without them.
Ashwin had a below-par series in Bangladesh recently, not finding enough dip and drift in the air, while Jadeja is making a comeback after an elongated rehab from a knee problem. But there are no two better spinners in the world, and the increasingly imposing presence of Axar would, in a way, allow them to ease into the series without feeling desperate for wickets - a scenario that perhaps speeds up the process of regaining their best rhythm.
The spin trial begins
All of it sets the stage for a looming spin trial for the Australians, who need to withstand the spin assault in Nagpur or risk giving an early footing on their throats to the opposition in what would then become a tour that only wears on them mentally.
It helps that, unlike the Indians, the engine room of their batting is peaking. Steve Smith has regained Steve Smith-levels dominance with the bat after initial stutters in the Covid times, where Marnus Labuschagne has established himself as the best young Test player in the world. It's those two against the spin trio which could well determine the fortunes of the series.
Australia would like to believe, however, there is more to their batting than the Smith-Labuschagne duo. Their left-handed opener Usman Khawaja has had a tremendous comeback year at the Test level, both home and away, including trips to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In the same period, Travis Head has been nailing it with the bat at No.5, overcoming question marks on his technical acumen with sheer confidence and aggression that seems to get the best out of him.
How the left-handed duo withstands an Indian attack that loves bowling to their kind may just be the most critical factor in deciding the series scoreline. Australia would be hoping also for an ageing David Warner to feel spurred on for the rigours of his last Test assignment in the subcontinent. The left-hander has a horrible record in India and need to dispel doubts around his ability to adjust to these conditions with a few impactful performances.
Another player that needs to prove his standing in the middle is wicketkeeper-batter Alex Carey, for whom the challenge would be two-fold: to not just conjure up important runs with the bat but to also grab every chance that comes his way on these pitches.
Heading into Nagpur, Australia are hampered by injuries. Their premier young allrounder Cameron Green is a doubtful inclusion for the game due to a broken finger and they won't have their pace veterans Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood available for the grind. That would dent their attack significantly, even if Scott Boland makes for an encouraging replacement.
They are likely to play two spinners in Nagpur, which would put their second spin option - likely a toss-up between Ashton Agar and Mitchell Swepson - under huge pressure and make it almost necessary that skipper Pat Cummins and veteran Nathan Lyon pack the punches to secure 20 wickets.
Also staring at Australians is the brunt of the history, with India winning four of their previous six Tests in Nagpur and losing only two of their previous 42 home Tests, clinching wins in 34 since the beginning of 2013. The record, however, wouldn't be of much substance when the first ball is bowled and both teams lock horns for supremacy. Expect a real dogfight of a Test match and a series for the memories.