Australia v India preview

I have been reliably informed that the Boxing Day Test at the MCG is the most eagerly anticipated day on the Australian cricket calendar and this year should be particularly good. (For the Aussies, anyway. As far as I’m concerned there is no way it could top last year’s Boxing Day Test.) Last time India came to Australia the hosts were starting to fade and it was only a year before India replaced them at the top of the Test rankings. That series featured one of the most contentious Test matches since the bodyline series and the tour almost ended early. I don’t see this series being quite so heated, though, as both Australia and India are some way from their peaks now. Of the seven Tests they have each played against England and South Africa in the previous 13 months Australia have two wins and four losses and India one win and five losses. Neither records could be seen as flukes either as both have looked distinctly ordinary, especially against England.

Australia have had more selection difficulties than India, though their bowling looks reasonably settled. Ryan Harris is unlikely to have proven his fitness before the start of the Test, so Mitchell Starc looks likely get the nod despite not particularly impressing against the Kiwis. Shane Watson is also struggling with his fitness, and if he cannot bowl it looks like Daniel Christian could replace him in the side. That said, England did very well against India with a four man attack, so it can be done. Given Australia’s batting woes I think it would be wise to lean toward more batting than more bowling, even at the risk of not having enough firepower to bowl out India’s batsmen twice. The big selection choice, however, is that of the batsmen. Phil Hughes has not done anything to encourage selection whilst Ed Cowan has scored a century against some of the Indian squad in the second tour match. This should make the selectors job pretty easy and I don’t see how they could possibly select Hughes over Cowan at this point. It is possible, of course, that Watson will be fit and return to open as he has done recently, but not only is his fitness a major doubt he will probably fit in better down the order. Shaun Marsh may also return to the middle order, and if Daniel Christian does make his debut it will be at the expense of a batsman. Any of them returning would mean that one of Khawaja, Ponting or Hussey will be dropped. The rumours have been that Khawaja will make way for Marsh, with Watson unlikely to be fit.

(Edited to add: Cricket Australia named a thirteen man squad for the first test and omitted Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja in favour of Ed Cowan and Shaun Marsh. Ben Hilfenhaus has also been added, slightly oddly. The balance of the side is still in question, but it looks very likely that Ed Cowan will open.)

India also have injury worries, with Ishant Sharma having bowled only 5.3 overs in the first warmup match and taking no part in the second. Zaheer Khan is always a worry and he missed the first warmup match, though with no specific scare. India seem to be trying to reprise their preparations for the tour of England last summer and I think they’ll continue to get the same results if they do not take the tour matches seriously. Yadav did bowl well in the first warmup match, but that was not against a testing batting order. India are helped by the fact that their top seven select themselves; barring injury, Gambhir through Dhoni are all a guarantee. Ashwin will certainly be the first choice spinner and if fit Khan, Sharma and Yadav will be the three seamers. The ‘if fit’ is a major caveat though and there doesn’t appear to be a clear replacement if one of the first choice bowlers goes down. Although their first XI is much more settled than Australia’s they are also a lot more mercurial. Their batsmen are ageing and cannot be relied upon to make the scores they once did (as we saw in England) and the fitness of their bowling is very suspect. If all their players fire they are a side worthy of challenging for number one in the world. If not we get the 0-4 that we saw in England.

The two sides complement each other well; India are strongest batting and Australia are strongest bowling. I think the series will be decided by India’s batsmen. If they can dominate Australia’s young bowlers they stand a good chance of winning, but if they fail as they did in England they will find the going very difficult. I don’t see either side dominating the other and I think the Australian’s home field advantage will allow them to shade it 2-1.

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