The Gabba, in Brisbane, Australia, is designed to provide the illusion of a packed house. Each of the stadium’s 42,000 seats is randomly coloured, which looks like there are plenty of heads on those seats, watching the game.
On Wednesday though, there was no need for any of those illusions, as a near-capacity crowd saw India and Australia face off in the first of three T-20 Internationals, on the tour Down Under.
Each of these spectators was treated to a humdinger of a contest, with India very nearly chasing down a stiff target of 174 in 17 overs, in a rain-hit encounter. However, disappointment prevailed for Indian fans in attendance, after duds from superstar batsmen like Kohli (4 off 8 balls), Rohit Sharma (7 off 8 balls) and K L Rahul (13 off 12 balls).
Irrespective of where the T-20 series goes, make no mistake that in Australia, what will really matter is the four-match Border-Gavaskar Test series, which begins on December 6. And the big question remains: is team India ready for the challenge?
Indian cricket strategy 101 says the key to winning Tests abroad is to put to assemble a bowling unit that can pick up 20 wickets. At least this was the discourse for the greater part of the early 21st century, when India began winning overseas Tests with greater frequency than before. That has changed today.
Pace has performed
In the recently concluded Test tour of England, the Indian pace battery bowled out England seven out of ten times that saw the Poms come out to bat. Among the wickets were Ishant Sharma (18 from 5 Tests), Mohammed Shami (16 from 5 Tests) and Jasprit Bumrah who picked up 14 wickets even after missing the first two matches. India, though, lost 4-1.
The Indian pace battery registered a healthy combined bowling average of 29.62, not bad for a side whose major concern, not more than a decade ago, was its ability to pick up 20 wickets. Even Ravichandran Ashwin, known for his wayward overseas record, picked up a handy 11 wickets at a tolerable bowling average of 32.72.
The bowlers’ performance a year ago, in South Africa, was even better. India’s bowlers picked up all 60 South African Test wickets, across three Test matches. Mohammed Shami, was wrecker-in-chief with 15 wickets at a stupendous average of 17, while Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar played supporting acts with their 14 and 10 wickets coming at impressive bowling averages of 25.2 and 20.2 respectively. India lost 2-1.
Batting woes prevail
You don’t need to look too far beyond the Indian batting line-up to see where the problem lies. Aside of Virat Kohli, no Indian batsman has made his mark in overseas Test matches.
In the six times Murali Vijay opened for India in South Africa, he averaged a measly 17, with India’s number three mainstay, Cheteshwar Pujara scoring all of 100 runs on that tour, at a deplorable 16.67. After a few promising tours, vice captain Ajinkya Rahane has struggled overseas too, notching up batting averages of just 28.5 and 25.7 in South Africa and England, respectively.
After averaging 16 in South Africa and 20.25 in England, India opener Shikhar Dhawan has been dropped, but his likely replacement in the eleven, K L Rahul, has only shown glimpses of promise — his average was 29.99 thanks to a face-saving 149 in a losing cause, in the fifth and last Test match earlier this year.
The writing is on the wall. For India to win — or at the very least, not lose as badly — its batsmen will have to pull up their socks. Dealing with the pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood isn’t going to make that task easy. Add to this, Australia’s bouncy tracks. But survival is a basic trait, and these losses notwithstanding, you can’t blame the Indian fan for holding fast to that semblance of expectation.
One bright spot
The inclusion Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant in the Test squad, neither of whom has played Tests in Australia, might well be the young blood that the team needs, to revive its overseas fortunes. Then there’s also kinder statistics down under that Indian batsmen could look to for succour.
In eight Tests that he’s played in Australia, Virat Kohli has scored five centuries at a champion-like Test average of 62. Rahane has played four Tests in Australia, and has scored at an average of 57 runs per innings, notching up a run short of 400 runs down under. With four 50's and a century in 4 Tests, Murali Vijay has also scored his 482 Test runs in Australia, at a stellar average of 60.25.While the burden of statistics might weigh heavily on the Indian batsmen when it comes to recent overseas performances, the fact is they throw out a whole other picture when it comes to individual performances in Australia. The ability to move beyond recent failures and focus on what should be a happy hunting ground could make the difference between another disastrous overseas tour and a keenly contested Test series.