India gear up for final turn

Cricket: In-form hosts take on Australia in concluding chapter of a long home season

India gear up for final turn

The sprawling Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium, which will become India’s 25th venue to host a Test on Thursday, sizzled at 34 degrees centigrade on Wednesday -- the gentle but dry heat sweeping across the concrete structure giving little respite to the Australians.

It may, however, be far less exacting for the visitors compared to the heat the Indian spinners could potentially turn on in the four-Test series.

The numbers amply highlight Australia’s struggles in the sub-continent. In the three-Test series against Sri Lanka last year, 52 Australian batsmen surrendered their wickets to three spinners – Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Lakshan Sandakan.

In their last visit to the UAE in 2014-15, they had lost 30 wickets to three Pakistani spinners in the two-Test series. And if you rewind a bit more, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja had run rings around the Aussies, claiming 53 wickets between them in the 2013 series.

All these series combined, they have lost a staggering 135 wickets to spinners out of possible 180 spread over nine Tests! That perhaps puts Australia’s struggles against the turning ball in the right perspective.

It’s not just Australia’s performance over the last few years in the subcontinent that brackets the tourists as “underdogs” in this contest but it’s also the dominance of the Virat Kohli-led side for close to two years that makes them runaway favourites. India, under Kohli, have been unbeaten for the last 19 Tests, they have not lost a single one of their 20 home Tests since their defeat to England in December 2012 in Kolkata and Australia are yet to win a Test in India in nearly 13 years. During this period they have played 11 Tests and lost nine.   

When Australia last came up against Ashwin in India, he had taken 63 wickets in 12 Tests at an average of 32.41 runs per wicket. Since then the off-spinner has amassed 191 wickets in 33 Tests at 22.61. The growth of his partner-in-crime, Jadeja, has been as fascinating given his limited skills. The left-arm spinner was just one-Test old with figures of 3/117 in 70 overs when Australia had to first confront him in these conditions.

After that forgettable debut, Jadeja has claimed 114 scalps at 23.71 and has forged a deadly combo with Ashwin. This will give an idea about what the Australians are going to be up against on pitches that are likely to be less sporting than the ones the Englishmen encountered.

While India are unlikely to insist on rank turners given how well they batted and bowled during England’s series on pitches that even the visitors termed “fair”, the weather is going to have some influence on preparations. With the onset of summer, the surfaces dry up faster and thus break-up in double quick time. It’s the fag end of India’s domestic season as well and the pitches normally would have slowed down.

The very sight of Ashwin and Jadeja, and possibly Jayant Yadav as well, bowling on these pitches can be excruciating. Much will depend upon Australia’s top three – Shaun Marsh, one of the better players of spin in their side, his opening partner David Warner and Smith, who was one of the few Australian batsmen to do well in India in 2013.    

While Australia have packed the squad with spinners, their best hopes still rest with Mitchell Starc. He is genuinely fast with the hard, new ball and is capable of getting the ball to reverse – two crucial skills for a fast bowler to succeed in these conditions. He can be a match-winner on his day. But how much impact the left-arm quick is going to have on the in-form Indian batting line-up is in the realm of speculation. Kohli remains the mainstay of batting with the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul, M Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane expected to continue their good work.

India have remained unbeaten this home season and they will be favourites to end it that way.

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