Tactical flexibility could prove decisive in the series opener in Chennai; all eyes will be on Tendulkar
The series opener at Chepauk could throw up stimulating fare tactically. Can Australia’s ambitious strategy of playing four pacemen on what is likely to be a spinner-friendly surface undo India when the first Test gets underway at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium on Friday?
It is possible that even a turner with plenty of red soil could assist bowlers who send down accurate cutters, particularly in the later stages on a wearing track. The uneven bounce would be their ally in these conditions.
The air-speed will be a factor too. And then the reverse swing comes into the picture. Peter Siddle & Co. will also attempt to hustle the Indians with aggressive short-pitched deliveries, draw them out of their comfort zones and mix their length to disrupt the batsmen’s footwork.
Or will the home spinners — India could play as many as four of them — run rings around the visiting batsmen in familiar territory?
Off-spinners Harbhajan Singh, in his momentous 100 Test, and homeboy Ravichandran Ashwin will target the four left-handers in the Australian batting. It will, indeed, be a battle within a battle if southpaws David Warner, Ed Cowan, Phillip Hughes and Matthew Wade face off against the two Indian off-spinners.
On the flip side, Harbhajan and Ashwin do not have a left-arm paceman in the side, someone who can create the ‘rough’ for them. Or will Australia’s left-armer Mitchell Starc indirectly end up helping the Indian duo, who could, potentially do more damage than his own off-spinning team-mate Nathan Lyon?
To make things more interesting, both sides have batting line-ups that are vulnerable. Batting collapses and rapid turnarounds are not unlikely.
After the 2-1 home defeat to England, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men have a lot riding in the four-Test Airtel series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The team require a series win like oxygen.
Backing their strength
The Australians have, cleverly, backed their strength. And the side would expect Siddle, James Pattinson and Starc to fire. Siddle and Pattinson have pace and intent. Starc, who can bring the ball into the right-hander, will provide left-arm variety. Moises Henriques, given his control, has run-denying attributes and can build pressure from one end to enable specialists to fire from the other. The breeze coming in from the Bay of Bengal, through the large gaps between the stands, could be a paceman’s ally in conventional swing as well.
Harbhajan and Ashwin could have the left-arm spin support of Pragyan Ohja and all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja. India, though, could be tempted to play Bhuvneshwar Kumar as Ishant Sharma’s pace partner considering this Australian side has often been undone by movement in the air.
The indications are that local boy Murali Vijay would team up with Virender Sehwag, the X factor, at the top of the order. Vijay has a healthy average of 47.50 — he has played five Tests and scored 380 runs — at home.
In his last Test against Australia, at Bangalore in 2010, the right-hander produced a match-winning 139 in the first innings.
The Aussie batting will revolve around skipper Michael Clarke. He can use his feet, find the gaps and build monuments.
For the host, maestro Sachin Tendulkar, in what could be his final international appearance on a favourite hunting ground, will be eager to put the disappointments against England behind. Tendulkar’s relationship with the Chepauk crowd is symbiotic in nature but can the 39-year-old legend turn the clock back?
Among the young Indian guns, the focus would be on the technically refined Cheteshwar Pujara. Virat Kohli is a feisty customer but his defence against incoming deliveries from the pacemen will be under scrutiny.
It’s advantage India but Australia, if its pacemen make inroads initially, could be in the hunt too. In these conditions, batting first should be the obvious ploy.
But then, would it not be tempting for a pace-heavy Australia to make full use of any early freshness in the pitch, and dictate the course of the game from there?
Tactical flexibility could prove decisive in the coming days.
The teams: India (from): M.S. Dhoni (captain), V. Sehwag, M. Vijay, C. Pujara, S. Tendulkar, V. Kohli, R. Jadeja, R. Ashwin, Harbhajan, I. Sharma, P. Ojha, Bhuvneshwar, S. Dhawan, A. Dinda, A. Rahane.
Australia: M. Clarke (captain), D. Warner, Ed Cowan, P. Hughes, S. Watson, M. Wade, M. Henriques, J. Pattinson, P. Siddle, N. Lyon, M. Starc, G. Maxwell (12th man).
Match starts at 9.30 a.m.