India in Australia: Can Indian batsmen support Virat?

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 05, 2018 15:20 hrs
Whose batting is stronger?

In the penultimate nets ahead of the first Test in Adelaide, Indian pacers didn't hold back against their own batsmen. Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah let the ball fly on Tuesday afternoon, perhaps they were under instruction from the team management given the likes of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood are waiting for day one of the series.

It was a strange sight, seeing Indian batsmen struggled against their own pacers. KL Rahul was bowled by Bumrah and struggled for timing against the other pacers. Vijay also had to duck a few times and was even hit on the helmet once. It made for a worrisome sight ahead of the first Test for the Indian team that has been beset with opening problems throughout the South Africa and England series.

On those two tours, the Indian team management used four different opening combinations, counting Vijay-Parthiv Patel who opened once in Johannesburg. Overall, Vijay batted thrice with Rahul and twice with Shikhar Dhawan, who has been dropped from the Test side at present. Rahul-Dhawan opened in three Tests in England as well, but the result wasn't considerably different.

In three Tests in South Africa, India's opening pairs averaged only 18.16. In five Tests in England, the opening pairs averaged 23.70. It doesn't help the middle order in overseas conditions if your number three batsman is walking out to bat with less than 50 runs on the board. Not to mention, the Indian middle order hasn't been too impressive either.

Cheteshwar Pujara scored 100 runs in three Tests in South Africa and 278 runs in five Tests in England (only 146 runs in seven innings there). Ajinkya Rahane scored 257 runs in five Tests, but there is an expectation of big knocks from him. He failed to convert his half-centuries in Nottingham and Southampton. Rohit Sharma, for whom Rahane was dropped in South Africa, managed only 78 runs in four innings against the Proteas.

Only one name has stood out from the ruins of six defeats in eight Tests in South Africa and England. Virat Kohli amassed runs by the truckloads in both countries, so much so that the Indian batting has come to be known as increasingly dependent on him. There is an obsession with Kohli in Australia, yet this small fact hasn't gone unnoticed among the hosts' bowling attack.

At the time of writing, India had named their shortlist of twelve players for the first Test, with only four bowlers highlighted. It means there is a long batting order listed for the Adelaide Test with either Rohit Sharma or Hanuma Vihari batting at number six. Is this the right formula for team India going into this series? It is possibly a good idea to buffer the batting because the bowling attack has been doing consistently well in overseas conditions, and despite the absence of Hardik Pandya, four bowlers can theoretically get the job done.

It is a similar thought in the Australian dressing room as well, wherein they have dropped all-rounder Mitchell Marsh from the mix and sent him back to Shield cricket to regain some form for later use in the series. It is a decision based on form and fitness of their bowling attack – including Nathan Lyon no doubt – but it also makes for some wonderment.

In the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner, this Australian line-up will always be considered lightweight. Thus, by playing an extra batsman in Peter Handscomb, they have taken a safety-first approach, which perhaps is a bit unseen in the first Test of the Australian summer. Usually, they come at you, all guns blazing, on and off the field, in strategy and execution. Perhaps they still will, given the noise in the media already, if not so much on the field.

Yet, clearly in the planning stage, skipper Tim Paine feels it right to go with a safety net of an extra batsman so that things do not backfire in the first Test at home after ball-tampering scandal. What about the rest of their batting line-up?

Aaron Finch has only played two Tests in his career and will open with debutant Marcus Harris. It isn't a lot of experience, when you consider that middle-order batsman Travis Head (2 matches) hasn't played too much Test cricket either.

Paine himself has only played 15 Tests, while Handscomb has featured in another 13. That is a sum total of 32 Tests between five of their seven batsmen. Shaun Marsh (34 Tests) and Usman Khawaja (35 Tests) bring some semblance of respectability to this otherwise massively inexperienced Australian batting line-up. But here's the thing – even with such an underrated side, they are the hosts.

Playing at home, they are aware of conditions, bounce, how the pitches will behave and play out over five days. Basically, they have grown up playing all their entire cricket on these wickets. That factor alone perhaps adds 20 per cent. Can the Indian batting line-up – barring Kohli – do enough to cancel that out?