By Niharika Raina
New Delhi, Feb 4 (IANS): When the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was last held in 2021, it turned out to be an epic ride. India, minus many regular players and the touring party resembling an injury ward, showed courage, grit, belief to fight against all odds and script an unforgettable 2-1 series triumph.
Such was the euphoria around India's glorious series triumph in Australia that it was chosen as the Ultimate Test Series of all time in an online poll by the International Cricket Council (ICC). Now with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy set to begin from February 9, 2023, the excitement around who wins this round is at a high amongst fans from Australia and India, with spots for the WTC final on line.
Australia, the current table toppers of the World Test Championship (WTC) standings, come into the series after brushing aside West Indies and South Africa at home, which makes chances of their dream of winning a Test series in India after 2004, dubbed as their "final frontier", brighter.
But this will undoubtedly be a tough challenge for Pat Cummins & Co, as playing a Test series in India is termed as an "Everest". Just like the mountain, facing off against an Indian side which is powerful and almost impossible to defeat in home conditions (haven't lost since losing to England 2-1 at home in 2012).
Both Australia and India are building up to the series with preparatory camps in Alur, Bengaluru and Nagpur (the venue for the first Test from February 9) respectively. Australia are high on confidence after putting up a strong show with bat and ball at home. But excelling in India is a different story altogether.
Their batters have been largely unproven in India, barring Steve Smith, who averages 60 from his 12 innings in the country, including three hundreds and a half-century. David Warner, despite touring India twice before, averages only 24.25, with the highest score of 71. Those numbers pale in comparison to Warner's overall Test average of 46.20, and 58.39 on home soil.
Usman Khawaja, the recent Shane Warner Test Player of the Year winner at the Australian Cricket Awards, is yet to play a Test in India despite being member of previous touring parties and his playing experience of India is from a trip with Australia A in 2018 in Bengaluru and Alur.
Matt Renshaw, 26, played all the four matches in the 2017 tour of India, scoring two half-centuries at an average of 29. But he has developed and improved as a batter since that tour six years ago. Peter Handscomb is in the touring party after averaging 28.28 last time in India in 2017.
Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head and Alex Carey haven't played a Test in India, though Head and Carey were on the Australia A trip to India in 2018. With the ball, captain Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc (unavailable for first Test), are averaging above 30 in India and have to be better with the new as well as old ball to replicate the success of the trio of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz in the 2004 series.
With spin, they can rely on Nathan Lyon for long spells and make breakthroughs on spin-friendly pitches in India. His support spinners, Ashton Agar, Mitchell Swepson and the uncapped Todd Murphy are unproven in the sub-continent though Swepson the leg-spinner was used in tours of Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
India, on the other hand, will feel that playing at home should provide them some comfort. But they also have issues of their own. Rishabh Pant, a dependable figure in Tests with bat and gloves as well as the highest run-scorer of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2021 triumph, is out for an indefinite period after surviving a horrific car accident in December 2022.
In his absence, KS Bharat and Ishan Kishan are the wicketkeeping options. While Bharat has been on the periphery for long and is a proven wicketkeeper, Kishan is more in the mould of Pant but hasn't kept wickets in first-class matches of late.
Moreover, their top four batters collectively average only 31.45 since 2020 and with uncertainty on Shreyas Iyer's availability for the first Test, the pressure on Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara will increase, especially when facing spin. Also, with Shubman Gill in recent fine form, it makes him an ideal candidate to open the batting instead of K.L. Rahul.
With Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav and Jaydev Unadkat, India have enough options in the fast-bowling department to cover up for Jasprit Bumrah's absence. In spin, Ravindra Jadeja's return is a welcome move, which strengthens the department featuring Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav.
The 2023 Border-Gavaskar Trophy has all the ingredients to make the series between two excellent teams an intriguing affair. But with home conditions and more strength in the bowling department, India can hope to be victorious till Australia spring a surprise out of nowhere.