By B Shrikant
Nagpur, Feb 8 (IANS): India and Australia meet for the first Test at the Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) Stadium here from Thursday with a lot at stake for both the teams in the four-match series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Australia have not won a series in India since 2004 and before that, they had returned disappointed in the country for more than three decades. But more galling for the Australians is the fact that India have won the last three editions of the Border-Gavaskar Series -- twice in Australia. The last time India lost a series to Australia was in 2014-15.
Thus for the Australians, a series against India has been the final frontier for decades and if things go as planned by the Indians, it is probably going to remain the unconquered summit for the next few years.
The Australians are expecting the hosts to lay out a spin minefield at each of the four venues and as of now, it appears that their worst nightmares are likely to come true as soon as the proceedings start in the first Test at the VCA Ground in Jamtha near Nagpur on Thursday.
So, when Australia skipper Pat Cummins sat down for the customary match-eve tete-a-tete with the media at noon on Wednesday, the talk was majorly about the spinning track, dry wicket and how huge a challenge it would be for his team considering they have not won a series in India for nearly two decades.
But Cummins said his team will not be carrying any extra baggage of expectations over that issue.
"No, This team is different from all the teams that have played in the past so we are hearing about the wins and we are hearing talk of losses. We know it is tough to tour India -- they are a really good cricket side, especially at home and we are excited and we will give it our best shot," said Cummins on Wednesday.
The Australians have packed their side with spinners -- four of them including rookie Todd Murphy, but their hopes will rest on Nathan Lyon, who has the best strike rate among recent foreign spinners to bowl in India. But the Aussies have always relied on their pace battery to trouble the Indians and will be planning to do so. Cummins said they have more or less decided on the playing XI, though he did not reveal whether the visitors will go into the Nagpur Test with three pacers and two spinners or stack up the spin department.
But their resources on the pace front are limited, depleted by the injury to Josh Hazlewood, who has not recovered fully from an Achilles problem sustained during Australia's Test against South Africa in Sydney last month. Fellow pacer Mitchell Starc is already out of the opener while pace-bowling allrounder Cameron Green -- Matthew Renshaw is set to fill in for Green -- is also ruled out of the Nagpur Test.
Scott Boland and Lance Morris are expected to partner Pat Cummins if the visitors decide to go in with three pacers. They will then have to take a call on the second spinner to partner Lyon and though Cummins refused to reveal the combination there are chances that Australia will blood young offie Todd Murphy in Nagpur, with skipper Cummins saying that two off-spinners can be successful against the right-handers packed in the Indian squad.
While the visitors are tackling their troubles, the Indians have their own challenges to overcome when they take the field on Thursday. The series is a must-win for the Indians not only to maintain their record at home but also to clinch their berth in the World Test Championship Final. Australia are already assured of a spot in the WTC final while winning the Border-Gavaskar Series 2-0 or 3-0 will also seal India's berth.
However, skipper Rohit Sharma downplayed the issue of the WTC Final berth saying they are taking things match-by-match and thinking only about the Nagpur Test first.
"There is no talk about the WTC final in the dressing room and the players are thinking more about this series and taking things match-by-match. Our entire focus is on the match starting tomorrow," he said.
The Indians have their own selection issues to tackle. They have to decide which three spinners out of the four at their disposal to take for the match with left-armer Ravindra Jadeja fit and available after a lengthy break. Jadeja is sure to partner with Ravichandran Ashwin and the Indian team management has to decide between Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav. Axar was the star of the previous Test series at home while Kuldeep did well on the Bangladesh tour.
Rohit said all four bring different things to the table and therefore they will pick horses for courses, refusing to say anything about selection matters.
The Indians will also have to fill in a spot in the middle order and decide on a wicketkeeper in the absence of Rishabh Pant, who is out of action after getting injured in a car crash. Though KS Bharat and Ishan Kishan are the two keeper-batters in the squad and chief coach Rahul Dravid will be hoping that they do the job that Pant has been doing -- contribute with the bat too at crucial times.
The VCA Stadium at Jamtha has been quite lucky for the Indians as they have won four out of the six matches played here -- drawing one and losing one to South Africa. Australia were the first team to play at Test here and lost by 172 runs.
The pitch looks dry and is expected to assist spinners towards the end of the second day, though the Australians are expecting it to start spinning from the first day itself as it looks very dry and cracks are apparent to them. The way the ground staff has been working on it over the last two days may help the left-arm spinner a lot from the pavilion end. It is the same end from which Vidarbha left-hander Aditya Sarvate claimed 6-17 in a Ranji Trophy match against Gujarat last month and 5-35 against Railways in another Ranji match.
The Aussies will however take heart from their overall record in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series as of the 102 Tests played so far, they have won 43 while India have won 30 -- 28 matches have been drawn and 1 tied.
The question uppermost of the minds of every one of the 40,000 spectators that have bought tickets for the Test starting on Thursday is whether India will be able to bridge the gap further and retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy again. For that to happen, the first nail needed to be put in at Nagpur.
India: Rohit Sharma (captain), K.L. Rahul (vc), Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KS Bharat, Ishan Kishan, Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Jaydev Unadkat, Suryakumar Yadav
Australia: Pat Cummins (captain), Steve Smith (VC), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Lance Morris, Todd Murphy, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner.