Australia’s long-awaited tour of India gets underway on Thursday afternoon, with a four-Test series between two of cricket’s powers featuring dozens of storylines.
The drama around the pitch itself, plus injuries to the World Test Championship-leading Aussies, have created even more than we were first expecting.
Foxsports.com.au runs through the burning questions ahead of the first Test in Nagpur.
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LAST CHANCE FOR THIS GROUP IN INDIA
With Australia losing just one Test in its past 15, and seemingly thriving under Pat Cummins and Andrew McDonald, it’s hard to ignore the feel-good factor surrounding this team ahead of the series.
There’s a feeling that it could be building towards something special, as shown by Allan Border, Kerry O’Keeffe, Ian Smith and Adam Gilchrist all predicting a 2-1 victory for Australia.
For a nation that has only won one series in India since 1969, that prediction is nothing short of bold.
Touring India is historically the hardest assignment for Australia, which has come close on a number of other occasions this century, but failed to get across the line.
No one from the current Australian group has won a Test series in India with the last time coming back when Gilchrist led the side in Ricky Ponting’s absence to a 2-1 triumph in 2004.
Rewind: Aussies win in India in 2004! | 04:44
Since then, Australia has won only a single Test match in India, losing another 10 and drawing three.
That one victory, however, came in Australia’s most recent visit in 2017, which the tourists will hope to build on.
Of that XI that won by 333 runs in Pune, many are touring again.
David Warner, Steve Smith, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Peter Handscomb and Matthew Renshaw all played in that match, and are expected to feature in some capacity during this year’s series, too.
The harsh truth, however, is that, for many, it is likely the last chance they will ever get to achieve one of cricket’s rarest feats.
Winning in 2004 proved to be the finest hour for a generation of legendary Australian cricketers, including Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer.
Winning in 2023 would certainly be viewed the same for this group, should Smith, Warner, Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins and co. pull it off.
‘Bulls***’ – Shastri slams Aus media | 01:09
Under the ICC’s Future Tours Program, Australia is not scheduled to tour India again until February 2027.
Australia could be missing much of its core XI by that point. Warner and Usman Khawaja would be 40, Lyon 39, Smith and Starc 37, Hazlewood and Alex Carey 36
Even Cummins would be 35 which, for a fast bowler, is at least very close to the end.
These names will eventually ride off into the sunset with strong Test records, but how many players can put beating India in India on their CV?
The answer is very few – which could make this ageing Australian group that bit hungrier this time around.
HEAD HOPING TO PROVE HE CAN HACK IT AWAY FROM HOME
If Travis Head was feeling nervous heading into this series, getting one look of the pitch on Tuesday wouldn’t have helped at all.
Pictures revealed that the Indian curators had only watered the middle of the wicket, and the area on a good length for right handers, while the other side was left bone dry.
With Australia left-hander heavy, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as any surprise.
Head is the third left-hander in Australia’s top-five after David Warner and Usman Khawaja.
For a batter not known as one of Australia’s better at facing spin, and already carrying a worrying away record, it could spell trouble for Head.
Steve Smith gives his pitch verdict | 02:28
The South Australian has enjoyed two sensational summers at home, scoring 357 runs at 59.50 against England in 2021-22, and 525 runs at 87.50 against the West Indies and South Africa in 2022-23.
Both summers saw him score at incredible speed too, with Head’s strike rate 86.02 against England and 95.10 against the West Indies and South Africa.
In between those two golden summers, however, came two lacklustre series in Asia. Head averaged just 22.66 in three Tests against Pakistan, and 7.66 in two against Sri Lanka, with spinners proving to be his downfall.
Combined with previous away struggles, Head’s Test average outside of Australia sits at just 21.69 compared to 57.40 at home.
Head’s unlocked the key in home conditions that could one day take him to Test greatness. And yet, performing exclusively at home can only get you so far.
The 29-year-old now needs to find the answers in Asia, where he will be sternly tested by India’s spinners in the coming weeks.
Should he succeed, then Head would be firmly on a trajectory that could take him to being one of the great Australian No.5s.
Sharma plays down pitch chatter | 02:00
Speaking to Foxsports.com.au last month, Head said that he feels that he’s been too defensive against spin in Asia previously, and will look to make a change this time around.
“In one-day cricket, I’ve had good success in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. You split the series up and my white-ball was really good, so maybe being a little bit more positive in red-ball cricket,” Head told Foxsports.com.au.
“Being slightly more positive makes my defence a lot better.
“I was probably not quite as aggressive as I would have liked to be against spin in those series away … other than that, I think I worked really hard and had a sound game plan.”
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN… OR FOR A ROOKIE?
As an unfortunate as it may be for Ashton Agar to lose his spot in the Test side after just one short appearance, if talent scouts are right, Todd Murphy is worth blooding as soon as possible.
At just 22, Murphy is viewed as Nathan Lyon’s heir apparent and a critical series in India – while an incredibly tough first task for the promising Victorian – is also where it’s worth taking some chances.
After all, the Indians are always mightily tough to beat at home. And it’s not as if Agar has been banging the door down to force his way into the position as Australia’s No.2 spinner either.
There are two elements here: picking Murphy the person, and picking Murphy the off-spinner.
India likely to go with three spinners | 01:44
Last month former paceman Michael Kasprowicz – who starred in Australia’s 2004 series win in the subcontinent – declared a debut in India isn’t right for anyone, regardless of their talent.
“Don’t do it (debut Murphy) in India,” Kasprowicz said. “They are the best players of spin in the world. There’s a temptation when you turn up to a spinning wicket … you end up finding that bowlers try too hard for their wickets.
“This whole search for spin (in India) … there’s a bit of a myth about that. The best spinner ever was Warnie. His record in India wasn’t fabulous. He’s bowling against the best players of spin in the world in their conditions. That was the other side of it. As far as spin bowlers, you don’t need to overthink it. You’ve got to almost simplify it.”
However former Test cricketer Simon O’Donnell isn’t concerned about the debut doing any damage to Murphy’s psyche.
“He’s very good stock, young Todd Murphy. It won’t be too much for him. He comes from a very mentally tough family,” O’Donnell said on SEN.
“He’s a very different bowler to Nathan Lyon as an offspinner. He’s quick through the air, he’s more direct. He’ll skid more over there.
“I think both of those guys can bowl on pitches that will be helpful to spinners – I don’t subscribe to ‘can’t have two offies play in India’.”
While common wisdom suggests playing a left-armer like Agar would work best, particularly to complement Lyon, it’s not as if Murphy struggles against righties.
In first class cricket since 2019-20, he averages almost the same against both types of batsmen – 26.7 vs righties, 23.7 against lefties. In contrast Agar averages 75.9 against righties and 51 against lefties. Murphy’s record is also better than that of fourth squad spinner Mitch Swepson (50 vs righties, 24 vs lefties).
“He’s as good an off-spinner as I’ve seen since Nathan Lyon,” Murphy’s Sydney Sixers teammate Steve O’Keefe told Foxsports.com.au earlier this summer.
“The ball comes out of his hand beautifully, he‘s been working on his variations. He’s going to be a star for the Sixers going forward, and also for the Australian cricket team when the time comes.
“Every year, he just seems to get a little bit better and add to that pile of new skills.”
There’s also the question of whether Australia even needs to play two spinners, especially with Cameron Green (finger) unavailable for the first Test.
Shane Warne was able to play the lone spin hand in 2004 when Australia last tasted victory on Indian soil – despite spinners Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh taking 48 wickets between them that series.
Offspinner Jason Krejza took a record 12 wickets in his Nagpur outing in 2008 – but it’s worth noting the New South Welshman also conceded the most runs on debut for Australia in that same outing.
But since then, the likes of Nathan Hauritz, Xavier Doherty, Stephen O’Keefe and Lyon have all been given the chance with the ball.
It’s worth remembering left-arm orthodox has an immense record in India over past three years through home talent Axar Patel, Ravindra Jadeja, England’s Jack Leach and Kiwi Ajaz Patel.
BJ backs Swepson for first India Test | 07:56
LEFT OR RIGHT, RENSHAW OR HANDSCOMB?
With Cameron Green “unlikely to play”, a middle order slot has opened up for either Peter Handscomb or Matt Renshaw – the question literally becomes which way do Australia turn
Given the top order is already stacked with left handers – something the Indian pitch curators have obviously noticed – the right-handed Handscomb could be sitting in the box seat.
Aussie selector George Bailey previously spoke highly of the Victorian’s achievements on the sub continent.
“Peter Handscomb deserves his place back in the squad. His domestic form has been strong recently and Pete has proven he can perform at Test level,” Bailey said.
“His experience against spin on the subcontinent is valuable and he is also an exceptionally good close to the wicket catcher.”
While Handscomb hasn’t featured for Australia at Test level since India’s tour down under in 2018/19, he’s shown plenty to be the Sheffield Shield’s leading runscorer with 571 at an average of 81.57.
“He’s obviously earned the right by scoring lots of runs in Shield cricket,” Cummins said of Handscomb’s Test squad recall.
“It’s always nice having a right-hander as well, as a different option, we’ve got plenty of left-handers.”
Renshaw sits down in 11th with 310 runs for the same amount of Shield games – but was the man called upon for the drawn Sydney Test.
Batting mainly at 5 last tour of India, Handscomb averaged 28.3 with the bat, while Renshaw averaged 29 in that same series – mainly at the top of the order or first drop.
Renshaw found support of former Aussie cricket great Adam Gilchrist.
“I’d be really keen to see Matt Renshaw come into that lineup somewhere,” he said on SEN.
“I think he’s well and truly ready to play again and I think he could do it in Australia or India or England, I think he’s got a very well-rounded skillset.”
The tricky, anti-lefty Nagpur wicket appears to have the Aussies leaning Handscomb’s way.
Lyon’s best Test figures – 8/50 in India | 00:44
KHAWAJA’S BIG CHANCE
Usman Khawaja will become the ninth opener Australia has turned to in India since their drought-breaking 2004 series victory.
And it’s not pretty reading for those at the top of the order, with just two centuries scored by an opener since that series – Simon Katich back in November 2008 and Shane Watson in October 2010.
That means it’s been more than a decade since an Australia opener has reached triple figures on India soil. David Warner hasn’t achieved the feat in 14 attempts, making Khawaja’s contribution this series all the more important since spin proved to be his nemesis early in his career.
It’s no secret Khawaja struggled on spin friendly pitches in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as he made his way into the Australian ranks. But since his brutal Ashes axing back in 2019, Khawaja has gone away and worked on his game as he starred for the Aussies in Pakistan last year. And now he’s in great form following on from his 195 not out against South Africa in the Sydney Test.
“I think Usman Khawaja showed some great play against spin,” former Aussie Test star Jason Gillespie said on SEN. “He’s really reinvented his game.
“What was seen early in his career as a bit of a weakness has become a real strength of his and that’s credit to Usman for how he’s going about it.”
While Khawaja is yet to play in India, he holds no fear of the spin friendly pitches he’s going to face this series.
“I’ve obviously done well in Test cricket in spinning conditions recently,” he said.
“For me, it’s more about the process. I’ve got my options. I’ll continue to use them, play them in the best method possible.
“There’s no guarantee in cricket. I could get eight ducks in a row. (But) I know a process that works for me, I know the different conditions and how I like to play against them.”
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