Australia will this week start its latest quest to achieve one of cricket’s rarest feats again, nearly six long years after suffering a 2-1 heartbreak on Indian soil.
Beating India in India is as hard as it gets, but Australia arrives in red-hot form, and with plenty of good feeling around the playing group led by Pat Cummins and Andrew McDonald.
India, meanwhile, is nursing some scars with big injuries hampering its defence of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, which starts on Thursday (3pm AEDT).
Nonetheless, there is no shortage of big threats for the Australians to lose sleep over — and that’s without mentioning a revitalised Virat Kohli.
Scroll down for our India state of play.
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Deciphering the Test form of India heading into the blockbuster series is difficult, purely for the fact it has hardly played any five-day games in recent times.
In the past 12 months, India has played just five Tests. That is the least of any Test-playing nation, and five less than Australia has played in the same period.
India won four of those five matches, beating Sri Lanka twice at home, and Bangladesh twice away, with a seven-wicket loss to England at Edgbaston coming in-between in July.
The nation’s 2021 was far busier from a Test perspective with 14 matches played — eight of those against England — in the calendar year.
India only lost three of those encounters, which is why it is still ranked as the second-best Test nation in the world, according to the ICC, despite a lack of matches recently.
Across the past two years, India’s win-loss ratio of 1.833 is behind only Australia, which has only lost one of its past 15 Tests.
Depending on where you rank Bazball-era England, the Border-Gavaskar series is a battle between the two greatest Test nations in the world, or at least two of the top three.
TWO MASSIVE BLOWS
Australia could be missing Cameron Green and Mitchell Starc for the first Test, but it’s India that’s nursing even deeper wounds.
On the team’s injury list are two names Australians will need no introduction to: Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant.
Both have excellent records against Australia.
Since the start of the 2018-19 summer, Bumrah has taken 32 wickets at 21.25 against Australia, sitting behind only Stuart Broad (36 at 26.52) for Aussie scalps taken in that period.
Needless to say, the loss of Bumrah is a massive blow to India. The unorthodox fast bowler brilliantly led Indian attacks that claimed consecutive Border-Gavaskar trophies in Australia in 2018-19 and 2020-21.
The latter series saw Pant deliver one of the all-time Test innings at the Gabba, as he smoked an unbeaten 89 off 138 balls to down Australia, and claim the series, at the nation’s fortress.
That wasn’t the only time Pant tormented Australia, however. The wicketkeeper-batsman’s seven Tests against Australia have seen him make 626 runs at 62.40, with an impressive strike rate of 72.13.
The 25-year-old is set to miss the series following a horrific, fiery car crash in December that he was lucky to survive. He underwent surgery in January to repair a torn knee ligament while he also suffered injuries to his head, back and leg.
KS Bharat and Ishan Kishan were called in to replace Pant, although neither have played Test cricket.
Former India player and selector Saba Karim said Pant’s absence exposes a major weakness for the Australians to attack.
“One spot that Australia would want to exploit is that of the opposition wicketkeeper. Rishabh Pant has changed the face of Test cricket for India and I hope they don’t feel the pinch of his absence,” he said.
Bumrah, meanwhile, hasn’t played for India since September due to a back injury. There were hopes he’d be fit in time for the first Test, but he was asked to undergo an extra month of rehabilitation. It means he will miss at least the first two Tests against Australia.
Meanwhile, Shreyas Iyer is recovering from his own back injury that will keep him out of contention for the first Test.
India is still also closely monitoring the fitness of spinning all-rounder Ravindra Jedeja, who hasn’t played for India since August.
He made a successful comeback through the Ranji Trophy last month, while his return to play Australia would be a major boost for the hosts with slow left-armers potentially playing a huge role.
Jadeja was India’s leading wicket-taker on Australia’s last tour in 2017, taking 25 wickets at 18.56.
WHO ARE THE BIGGEST THREATS?
Missing Bumrah and Pant robs India of two big threats, but plenty remain for the Australians to worry about.
Arguably the top of that list is veteran tweaker Ravichandran Ashwin, who is a formidable opponent on home soil.
Why else would have Australia plucked a so-called Ashwin impersonator from Indian domestic cricket to bowl to its batters?
Young spinner Mahesh Pithiya, whose action is uncannily similar to that of Ashwin, has been bowling to the Australians in the nets over the past week as part of the visitors’ preparation.
It was enough to amuse former India opener Wasim Jaffer, who tweeted: “(Ashwin) is already inside Aus head.”
Of Ashwin’s 449 Test wickets, 312 of those have come at home at an average of 21.16 runs apiece.
Against Australia, he took 21 wickets at 27.38 in the last Border-Gavaskar series in India, while he enjoys a strong record against some of the tourists’ best batters.
Ashwin has dismissed David Warner 10 times in Test cricket at an average of 33.10, and Steve Smith six times at 44.33. Those averages might not seem like much, but they’re well below those batters’ normal production rates.
Meanwhile, left-arm orthodox spinners have run riot in India in the past three years, with four of the top-five wicket-takers — Axar Patel, Jack Leach, Ajaz Patel and Jadeja — belonging to the discipline. In the last Border-Gavaskar series in India in 2017, Australia’s own left-arm tweaker Steve O’Keefe was the nation’s best bowler with 19 wickets at 23.26.
As such, it should be no surprise to see Jadeja or Axar Patel cause massive headaches this series, too. That said, the latter is in a selection showdown with left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav, with opinion divided in India over who should play the first Test.
Former India quick Irfan Pathan is firmly of the opinion that Patel should play, singling out the 29-year-old as the one bowler who can cause Smith big headaches.
“If he plays regularly all the matches, the kind of trajectory he has, he can be a big threat to him,” Pathan said, per the Hindustan Times.
“The line and length he bowls, the straight ball he bowls, he can bring the lbw or bowled into play against Steve Smith, especially because he uses his bottom hand a lot.
“A bowler who continuously bowls at the stumps can prove to be an alarm bell against such a player, that is Axar Patel.”
As for with the bat, this series looms as a legacy-sealing opportunity for one man…
KOHLI’S OMINOUS RESET… AND HIS HEIR APPARENT
Crazy to think now, but Kohli went 1,021 days without scoring an international century — a drought that only ended in September.
Concerns grew that Kohli would never be the same… until he scored 122* in a T20I against Afghanistan to end the hoodoo.
He then promptly blasted three more centuries in his next four ODIs.
In T20s, Kohli has made 606 runs at 67.33 since the start of September, including one century and a whopping six fifties.
True that it’s against the white ball that Kohli has been back to his dominant best, but the form bodes well for the series against Australia, too.
Kohli has clearly hit the reset button by taking more than a month away from cricket prior to September. During that period, something clicked for Kohli that should have Australia, and any opponent of India for that matter, scared.
“Ever since I came back from that long break, I have been feeling very good about my game,” he said after making 166* off 110 balls against Sri Lanka last month. “I don’t have that desperation anymore to get to a milestone.
“I am content with how I am playing, and that, for me, is the most important thing.
“I was just happy to be out there, to be batting, to be batting for as long as possible. In that space, I end up playing my best cricket. That has been the case in the past as well. When I got a bit desperate, things were running away from me.”
Kohli is walking proof that no matter your age, or level of greatness, you truly never stop learning.
That he has seemingly unlocked another level of greatness ahead of Australia’s visit is unfortunate timing for Pat Cummins and co.
Already one of the most fearsome opponents Australian bowlers have ever faced, Kohli, armed with a more relaxed approach, now has the chance to cement his legacy in this legendary rivalry.
Kohli has been the defining figure of the Border-Gavaskar series for more than a decade. His first 12 Tests against Australia saw him register a whopping six centuries, with five of those coming on foreign soil.
Now, at 34 years old, we are seeing Kohli play some of his final Tests against Australia, against which he has scored 1,682 runs at 48.05.
Within those numbers, however, is a cricket anomaly that Kohli will want to put right over the coming weeks.
By virtue of a disastrous 2017 series, in which he made just 46 runs at 9.20, Kohli averages far less against Australia at home than he does away. In seven home Tests against Australia, Kohli averages just 33.00, well below his career average of 48.90.
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With other senior players unavailable, the pressure will be on Kohli to turn around that form line and, in doing so, leave yet another long-lasting mark on the Australians.
Meanwhile, the possible inclusion of Shubman Gill would give the Indians a sense of continuity with the 23-year-old looking like the all-formats heir apparent to Kohli.
While Gill’s start to Test life has been relatively quiet, he’s averaging 73.76 from 21 ODIs and is fresh from blasting an unbelievable 126 not out off 63 balls against New Zealand in the third T20.
His recent performances have seen him earn the nickname “Smoothman Gill” from Sunil Gavaskar, while teammate Hardik Pandya has tipped him for greatness.
“He will achieve greater heights in his career for sure because of not what he did today but because of his work ethic and the honesty towards his game,” Pandya told the BCCI website after Gill’s century.
Meanwhile, Jaffer told ESPNCricinfo that Gill has “come of age” just before Australia’s visit.
He added: “He is a three-format player and after Virat Kohli he is the next big batter that’s going to come good.”