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Are Virat Kohli and Co. on the front foot?| Aakash Sivasubramaniam

Aakash Sivasubramaniam

India has faced the most difficult test yet at home, and the results are surprising. The Aussies have lived up to the bill with a near perfect performance at Pune against the spin duo of Ashwin and Jadeja. Australia, have not won a single game in India for the past 12 years where a spirited Kangaroos outperformed the hosts with a 342-run victory.

The defeat at MCA Stadium in Pune on the last Saturday was India’s first loss in the current on-going home season for Virat Kohli’s team. India followed the test loss with a comprehensive win in the second test at Bengaluru triggering a mini-collapse in the Australian dressing room. The Aussies have further suffered a twin setback with the injuries to both Mitchell Marsh and Mitchell Starc.

With the visiting team, low on confidence following their recent setback, it might be a good omen for Team India who look to take away the series from their grasp.

India at Home

Kohli’s men were on the verge of completing the home run with impeccable series wins against the likes of New Zealand, England, South Africa and Sri Lanka, losing their only test match against the Asian neighbours Sri Lanka.

India last lost a home test match against the Lankan Lions where the star-studded line-up collapsed amazingly on the final day of the test. Although India lost the first test match by 63 runs, they sealed the series by winning the final two matches at Home. India was put under immense pressure from the spinner Rangana Herath who finished the game with a figure of 7-48. India were set a modest target of 192 runs, and the task looked simple as the Indians managed to pile up 375 runs in their first innings. Indian batting order collapsed dramatically and lost the match against Rangana Herath and co.

None of the other teams gave them a match to ponder yet in the entire home season, and Kohli’s men went into the Australian tour unscathed.

ENTER Steven Smith and his Australian team

Australia celebrating their test series victory over Pakistan (Credits: ESPN Cricinfo)

Steven Smith’s Australian team were against the odds, with the odds favouring a whitewash for the Indians. Smith’s team was a mix which consists of many first timers to India and many experienced players who are accustomed to these conditions.

Australia, were on the back of a convincing test series win against India’s arch-rivals Pakistan. The clean sweep against the World No 1 Test team put out a clear message to the rest of the test playing nations “Beware Australia”.

Australia had a few signs of clear positives to take away from the series whitewash against the men in green. These positives were Starc’s return to the Australian team, Josh Hazlewood’s nagging line outside the off stump and Matt Renshaw’s astonishing technique against the Pakistan bowling unit.

The Baggy Greens were almost on the verge of bottling up their lead and the first test match against Pakistan only to recover miraculously to win the test by a meagre 39 runs. The close encounter gave the push that Steve Smith’s young Australian team were looking for, with emphatic victories following the close encounter.

Australia unsurprisingly started the test series as the “underdogs” before the commencement of the First Test at Pune. Smith, suggested else wise in his pre-match conference having the utmost confidence in his squad and his team as he spoke to ESPN.

“I think that’s an important aspect of the captaincy here in India. It is about knowing the right periods and timing the periods right – when to sort of take the foot off the pedal and to go hard as well. I think I learnt a little about that in Sri Lanka. You don’t want people to change their natural games. It is always important to be positive and look to score. I think the moment you just start defending then you are probably in trouble”.

Smith focused on getting the basic rights, and that’s exactly what the Australians have got a spot on in the first test of the series. The Australian team coached by Darren Lehmann got the following things on target in the first match. However, it was the hosts’coach Anil Kumble who got it right in the second and crucial test of the series.

1. The Spin Conundrum

First Test:

“Nice Gary” was the constant shout on the first day of the Second Test match. Smith’s spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe have provided the breakthrough when needed for the captain. Lyon got the fundamentals right on the Pune pitch with his deliveries getting more turn on the pitch against his counterpart Ravichandran Ashwin. Lyon had a steady action with enough revs on the ball to get it turn square against Kohli and co with his deliveries generally on the 80 kmph barrier.

Steve O’Keefe is a different bowler altogether from Lyon with his deliveries at a slightly higher speed and flat trajectories. The NSW spinner gets the ball to turn a little bit like his counterpart Ravindra Jadeja with varying speeds. This has allowed O’Keefe to grab 12 wickets on the track while the Indian spinners were facing flaks and criticisms from the media.

Second Test:

The second test however was a different picture altogether, with the spin duo of Ashwin and Jadeja getting wickets in tandem. Ashwin, in particular left no stone unturned with the Aussies reeling in the second innings. The Australian team were set a modest target of 187 to wrap up the series and retain the trophy. The Aussies failed to wrap up the series to leave the series right to the end.

Ashwin grabbed another fifer in the second innings of the test match, overtaking the wickets taken by Bishen Singh Bedi. Jadeja made use of the opportunities when he was introduced to bowl with crucial wickets of Steve Smith in the first innings.

2. Partnerships

First Test:

Indian team throughout the entire first test did not muster enough runs on the board in tandem. The only notable partnership throughout the entire first test match was that of Cheteshwar Pujara and KL Rahul who put up a 61-run partnership during the first inning of the Pune test.

In stark comparison, the Australian team has managed to put four partnerships of 50+ against the Indian bowlers who have bowled their hearts out in the first test. Matt Renshaw and David Warner’s 82 runs partnership has provided the base that has helped the Aussies settle on the otherwise, tough pitch to bat on.

The partnerships do not restrict solely to batting; Smith has bowled his bowlers in perfect partnerships be it Starc and Hazelwood or be it, Lyon and O’Keefe.

Second Test

The second innings of Australia in the second test was a mirror image of Team India’s performance in the first test match. The Aussie batsmen failed to build up partnerships which made the difference between the two sides.

India on the other hand had a crucial partnership between Ajinkya Rahane and Pujara in the second innings of the Test. The partnership not only built a solid platform for the team to attack in the last innings of the Test match.

3. Captaincy

First Test:

Smith’s tactics are what has separated him from the past Australian captains. Michael Clarke failed to create a notable impact on the previous tour as the captain of Australia. Smith’s tactics and field setups have allowed his bowlers to bowl with freedom and space.

The Australian captain did not restrict his bowlers by having a certain field set-up, supporting his bowlers constantly throughout both the innings. Smith’s bowling changes per the situation has differentiated the both teams from one another. Smith’s decision to bring in Starc when Virat Kohli walked in to bat in the first innings provided the spark that the team needed.

Second Test

The second test match followed a similar pattern to the first test with Steve Smith almost leading the side to a victory on the first 3 days of the test match. The fourth day however belonged to the mastermind tactics of Virat Kohli in placing the fielders at attacking positions.

Kohli’s introduction of Umesh Yadav in the second innings of the Australian batting made the difference for the men in blue. Yadav, picked up timely wickets of the Australian captain Smith and an important wicket of Shaun Marsh. Kohli’s tactics made the difference on day 4 with the constant switching of his bowlers.

What’s next?

With the series in the balance, it looks like the team which takes more risk would win the next test and subsequently have a shot at the trophy.

Steve Smith, would like his side to go out and attack the Indian team from ball one to stand a chance to go up in the series. Kohli, on the other hand would want his team to stick to the basics and make more runs in tandem. Team India’s fielding must improve in the third test, failing which the Australian batsmen will have more shots on the cherry.

The concerns are definitely huge for Smith with Mitchell Marsh and Mitchell Starc being ruled out of the series. Replacement Pat Cummins might come in and start the match in place of the injured Starc. It would be interesting to see how the teams change their tactics going in the crucial test of the Indian summer.

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