By Shrikant Bhagvatula
Mumbai, Feb 4 (IANS): When Vidarbha was playing Gujarat in a Ranji Trophy match at the Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) Stadium in Jamtha, Nagpur, in January, many people in Australia were keeping a close watch on the proceedings.
Among them were the support staff of the Australian men's cricket team who were following the match because the Aussies are scheduled to play the first Test of the Border-Gavaskar Series 2023 at the VCA Stadium from February 9-13.
The pitch at the VCA Stadium for that match turned out to be a spinners' paradise as Vidarbha won the match by 18 runs despite getting bowled out for 74.
Gujarat were chasing a target of 73 runs but were bowled out for 54 in 33.3 overs. Left-arm orthodox spinner Aditya Sarwate claimed 11 wickets for 81 runs. He claimed 6-17 in 15.3 overs in Gujarat's second innings.
The match played from January 17-19, proved right the Australian cricket establishment's worst fears about the huge spin challenge their team will face during its trip to India for the four-match Test Series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
The concerns in Australian cricket circles have been accentuated by the fact that three of the four matches will be played at places that are not traditional Test venues in India -- except Delhi where the Arun Jaitley Stadium has hosted many Test matches.
The other venues have not hosted many matches in recent times. While the first Test will be played at Nagpur, the Arun Jaitley Cricket Stadium in New Delhi will host the second Test, the third match will be played at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium at Dharamsala and the fourth at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.
Unlike countries like Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa the BCCI selects venues for the matches from a long list based on a rotation system in which the venues host matches by turn. This rotation system along with the very few Tests the country hosts nowadays, are the major reasons why venues are chosen after long breaks. There is no sorcery involved on the part of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
For example, the VCA Stadium at Jamtha will host a Test match after a gap of five years after the India v Sri Lanka Test of 2017 that the hosts won by an innings and 239 runs.
The Arun Jaitley Stadium, known previously as the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, has hosted 36 Tests but the last one played there was a drawn match against Sri Lanka in December 2017. Though the pitch. which was earlier considered batting-friendly, has in recent times faced severe criticism, just escaping a ban ahead of the 2011 World Cup. It is the same stadium at which India's legendary leg-spinner Anil Kumble claimed all the 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan.
The Dharamsala stadium has played host to only one Test so far -- against Australia -- which was dominated by spin as India won the match by eight wickets. The stadium at Motera hosted its last match in 2021.
One of the reasons for these grounds hosting so few Test matches and after such long gaps is that India has in recent years played very few Test matches at home and with so many venues to choose from, they get to host matches after long gaps.
Considering the record of these grounds, Australia are expecting spin-friendly tracks. They also expect these tracks to be slightly under-prepared and break easily. The last two matches played at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad ended in two and three days respectively as England slumped to a defeat.
The current Australian team is unbeaten in 10 matches and is hoping to conquer what they have at various times considered as the 'final frontier' or 'final summit'. Australia has not won a series in India since 2004 when a team led by Adam Gilchrist won the series at Nagpur, ending a 35-year jinx of not winning a Test series in India.
India are the current holder of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, having won the last three series against Australia in 2017, 2018-19 and 2020-21. India have hosted Australia in 14 Test series and hold an 8-4 lead, with two of the series being drawn.
Eight of these Test series in India have been played for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, with the hosts holding a 7-1 series lead in that time and a 16-5 win-loss ratio across the 25 Tests on their home soil, while Australia last won a Test series in India in 2004.
A 4-0 series win for India in the upcoming series would help them attain a points percentage of 68.06, which is likely to be enough for a crucial top-two finish in the WTC standings, while Australia are well-placed to qualify for the final to be held in June regardless of the series result in India.
With so much at stake for the hosts, Australia are are expecting India to play to their strength at home and choose outright spin-friendly tracks. Australia have included four spinners in their squad with rookie spinner Todd Murphy, Ashton Agar and Mitchell Swepson as potential spin partners for Nathan Lyon, who is their most experienced spin bowler and someone capable of causing trouble for the Indians considered proficient in playing the turning ball.
The Aussies expect spin to play a major role in the series and that is the reason they have devised a special strategy to meet the challenge. They have eschewed playing tour matches to prepare for the Test series and instead have decided to train at Bengaluru before travelling to Nagpur, which will host the first Test from February 9-13.
They have also avoided training at any of the venues that will host the four Tests and are getting ready for the tough battles ahead with the help of local spinners including one who has an uncanny resemblance to the bowling style of India star Ravichandran Ashwin.
During their first training session at the Karnataka cricket Association facility at Alur, near Bengaluru, their top batsmen Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head batted for long sessions in the morning, facing left-arm spinners provided as net bowlers and their own spinners. Their pace bowlers did not have a bowl at the nets at all in the first session.
Though the way the Aussies have gone about planning their training sessions, they expect the Indians to make them bat on treacherous tracks that will spin square from day one. However, the situation may not be as loaded in favour of the hosts as the Aussies will like to make it. The VCA pitch at Nagpur helps pace on the first day as was evident in the January 17 Ranji Trophy match between Vidarbha and Gujarat in which medium pacers Chintan Gaja and Tejas Patel were the wreckers-in-chief when Vidarbha were bowled out for 74 in their first innings.
The Aussies are expected to look at the venues with wary eyes and will be suspicious that the BCCI has picked to add to their woes and make them stumble once again.
If they are unable to tackle the conditions well, the Final Summit will remain unconquered once again.