Blade Fury

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As Australia and India shape up for four Test matches across December and January, it is impossible to look at the series without overlaying the context of two years ago, when India last visited for the same sort of engagement and departed with a 2-1 win.

The home team’s preferred bowling attack this summer will be identical: Mitchell Starc, Patrick Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon. The first match will again be at Adelaide, and the captains shaking hands at the toss will again be Tim Paine and Virat Kohli. India’s attack will again be led by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, with Ravi Ashwin as spin support, while their batting starch will again come courtesy of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.

The obvious difference is that last time the series was missing Australia’s two premier batsmen of the decade, with David Warner and Steve Smith serving the suspensions they were handed after the South African ball-tampering episode. Their presence this time around was supposed to lend the contest a very different character. As it turns out, though, Warner may miss the first half of this series too. The muscle strain that he picked up during the recent one-day series will see him miss Adelaide and perhaps also the Boxing Day Test.

Most observers would rate Smith the more significant inclusion, as the man for a crisis who has bailed out Australia on all sorts of heavy seas. Warner, though, is a batting monster in home summers. When India visited in 2014-15 he started the series against them with twin tons in Adelaide, and finished it with another in Sydney. In 2012 he crashed 180 from 159 balls in Perth. In home Tests across his career he averages nearly 66, with 18 hundreds. Nobody has clocked Australian conditions in the modern era of consistent surfaces like Warner.

Which is not to discount Smith, who has only played one home series against India but used it to rack up four tons in four Tests and average 128. That 2014-15 series feels like a lifetime ago – it was Smith’s first truly dominant series as he flagged the piles of runs that were to come, and was the first time he captained as a stand-in when Michael Clarke was injured. Even visiting India has held no fears for Smith: in six Tests there he has another three centuries, and against India in total he averages 84. Not to mention a one-day average of 62 against them with another five tons, two of them in the last few weeks.

A sore back forced Smith to prematurely leave a net session at Adelaide Oval on Tuesday, but he is expected to take his place in the side come Thursday. A hungry Smith is a danger for India. He has not had the chance to play a Test match since the first week of January, and he sat on the sidelines for Australia’s one-day series in England in September after a head knock in training. He has been short of cricket for the national team, and those one-day hundreds against India in late November, each of them off 62 balls, signalled a determination to make up for lost time.

But Australia this year are a much more rounded batting team outside those main two. Travis Head played every Test last time but is two years more experienced, with a seniority made plain when he was asked to captain Australia A during a warm-up match, despite Paine also playing in that side. Marnus Labuschagne played in the final Test of that previous series, offering a marginal presence in his third match, but after a strong tour of England in 2019 he churned out hundreds in 2019-20, turning himself into the player of substance at first drop that Australia had been lacking for so long. This season he may face the Difficult Second Album syndrome, but he also has the chance for his steep trajectory of improvement to continue. Then there is Matthew Wade, who did not feature last time but has spent the intervening years gleefully amassing a hoard of runs for state and club and country in every format.

The weakness lies with Warner’s absence. Of the opening candidates, Joe Burns has suffered a run-scoring trough at the same time as Will Pucovski suffered concussion. Marcus Harris had to be included to cover for them despite two unconvincing warm-up matches against India and a lukewarm Test history. The likely option is that Wade will be promoted to partner him so that Cameron Green can debut at six, meaning a makeshift opener doing the hardest job in the team and a nervous young player down the order. This is the instability that India’s bowlers can target.

For India, this is what it will come down to: whether their bowlers have the incisiveness to carve through Australia’s batting like last time. Australia win Test matches at home by a simple formula: using bat-friendly conditions to pile up huge scores, then having very fast bowlers extract what pace there is in the pitch. Two years ago India’s pace battery took wickets early and often enough to stop this happening except in Perth.

In the other three matches, Pujara used Australia’s method, batting for eons to exhaust and demoralise. This time, seeing Kohli return home after one Test for family reasons will be a loss, but last time his one century for the tour was during the Perth loss. He was vital more in attitude than runs. This time his aggression will be present in the bolder young generation of Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill, while resistance to good bowling can be supplied by Rahane, Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari.

The ingredients are there for India to double up, but every touring team’s chance of success in Australia rises or mostly falls based on its premium fast bowlers up against the first few partnerships of the match. On that score, the contest lies in the fingers and wrists of Bumrah and Shami, and in the ability of the Australians to outlast them.