Pat Cummins, Australia’s captain and lead pacer, has returned home for personal reasons. Opener David Warner, the experience of 103 Tests behind him, and fast bowler Josh Hazlewood are also unavailable due to injury. The players seem uncertain of their batting technique and their mind is perhaps scrambled just by the challenge that a long, taxing away tour encompasses.
If any team can sympathise with Australia’s dire predicament right now, it is likely to be India given their own experience on the last tour Down Under in 2020/21. As is well-documented, skipper Virat Kohli was unavailable for the final three Tests of the series after the ignominy of 36 all out at Adelaide and a host of senior players suffered injuries as the series wore on, leaving India with no choice but to field a very depleted side by the time the final Test came around, at Australia’s fortress Gabba, no less.
What followed, of course, was one of the most storied chapters in India’s cricket history as they scripted a miraculous comeback series win with the odds heavily stacked against them. As former head coach Ravi Shastri likes to recall in his inimitable tone, he told his players to wear the Adelaide humbling like a badge of honour and show the stomach for a fight.
Currently, the Aussies need someone in that dressing room to be that voice of hope and strength. As much as India’s performance in Australia was a one-off that can’t really be replicated, the men donning the Baggy Green need to believe there’s still plenty to play for.
Though the opportunity to claim a series victory has swiftly passed them by as they trail 0-2, even a drawn series would be a remarkable result in light of India’s recent home dominance. A nine-day break after the second Test can perhaps help them introspect and return with renewed vigour for the third Test in Indore from Wednesday.
“India didn’t lose back-to-back Tests. India lost in Adelaide but bounced back strongly in Melbourne,” said Sridharan Sriram, who was Australia’s assistant coach helping the spinners from 2018 to 2022. “This break can be good for Australia. But India went into the third Test in Sydney with the series locked at 1-1. I don’t think you can draw parallels. Coming back from 0-2 is a lot tougher than coming back from 0-1.”
The absence of Cummins, Warner and Hazlewood is a blow, but the return of left-arm pacer Mitchell Starc and all-rounder Cameron Green is a boost. Starc has snaffled 50 wickets in 15 Tests in the subcontinent at a strike rate of 53.5.
“Starc has always done well in the subcontinent because he has got the air speed. He doesn’t rely so much on the pitch. He can bowl yorkers and get the tailenders out. He is someone who can take the pitch out of the equation whereas the others are hit-the-deck bowlers who rely on something from the surface. That’s the advantage with Starc,” the 47-year-old former India cricketer said.
What about Green? “Green, with his height and bounce, can complement Starc. It allows them to play three spinners while also having two pacers. It gives them additional balance. These two coming in is definitely good news for the Australians.”
Australia will also hope that Steve Smith comes to the fore with the bat. The added responsibility of captaincy for this Test shouldn’t weigh heavily on a man who averages a staggering 67.73 in 36 Tests as skipper. He is also one of only two captains — the other is Joe Root — to have won a Test in India since 2013. He’s been unusually subdued with scores of 37, 25*, 0 and 9 in his four innings in this series.
“Smith is a person who wants to be the best. He is so hungry for runs and so committed as a batter. He sets such high standards for himself. I am sure he’s eager to get some runs on the board,” Sriram said.
“There has been a lot happening within that Aussie camp. They will be keen to fight back. Knowing them, they pride themselves on performing, especially in India and England. There will be a lot of individuals who will be keyed up,” he added.
For Australia to turn things around on this tour — a seemingly tall ask at this stage — the most fundamental requirement is a drastic improvement batting against spin. While the players will be aware of what needs to be done, it may still be worth reiterating the advice of someone who was an integral member of their support staff until last year.
“Everyone has got a bit of a template, but it is about trusting that template and doing it for longer periods of time. You have to find that right balance between attack and defence. You can’t go into a shell and have to put pressure back on the bowler. You have to find the correct tempo to play the game in India,” he said.