The focus on the recently concluded Indian domestic cricket season was quite heartening. The reason behind this interest has been the mini-crisis that the senior team has been facing. To leave aside their performances in the limited-overs format, their record in the Test arena since the fateful tour of England in 2011 has been a forgettable one. A win against West Indies and New Zealand in the intervening period between the two humbling defeats to England was their only consolation.
The departure of two of their most prolific batsmen, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, means that the tag of the team with the best batting line-up is no more theirs to be proud of. The imminent departure of Sachin Tendulkar will mark the final act of the old guard making way for the new generation. The absence of the fab-four, combined with an experienced but unsettled batting line-up, gives a hint of vulnerability to this Indian team; which is the reason why everyone was glued to the domestic season to identify and search for the alternatives that will shape a future Team India.
The failure of the openers in Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag and with the eternal search for a dependable No. 6, a lot was riding upon the performances of the players-in-waiting in the recently concluded Ranji Trophy that was won by Mumbai. Rightly so, the selectors rewarded some of them with a place in the national squad. Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, got a call for the high-profile Border-Gavaskar trophy that begins February 22. Gautam Gambhir was dropped – and rightly so – given the command of the ‘A’ team to prove himself fit enough for the national team. The list of players included in the team gives you a whiff of the BCCI’s intention of building a team for the future. Not to take anything away from the selectors for choosing a team that best suits its needs at home, the one person that they could have recalled was Mumbai’s Wasim Jaffer. He had had a successful Ranji season in which he slammed three centuries that helped him amass 835 runs. Selecting Vijay over him who has had a poor season (as far as Ranji goes) seems a bit unfair.
However, the biggest concern that confronts them is their below par bowling performances. The team, over the years, has always relied on its tweakers to bring them back in the hunt just when it looked that they were done for. In Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, they had top quality bowlers who hunted in pairs. While the former has retired, the latter is searching for his old touch. His recall isn’t a result of some inspiring performance but for his terrific record against the Australian side that the team is counting upon when they face their inexperienced batting line-up. The absence of veteran Zaheer Khan means that the responsibility to lead the pace attack falls squarely on the shoulders of Ishant Sharma, who is still searching for the elusive reason why he fails to get wickets in spite of bowling impressive spells.
On the other hand, Australia are bringing a team that in the name of having experience of the Indian conditions, boasts of Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle. One or two can claim to be familiar with the environment; for the rest, it is an uncharted territory. However, the reputation of their young bowling attack and their recent performances demand a certain level of caution. Australia have their own batting problems, which are similar to their hosts, that includes the absence of a solid opening pair and a vulnerable middle order that is without Michael Hussey.
The Australian batting will be heavily dependent on their skipper, who had a fantastic 2011 as he went on to score 1080 runs at an average of 77.14. However, the return of Shane Watson purely as a batsman and the resulting uncertainty in the batting line up has thrown some challenges before Clarke, who has said that the current series against India, whom they had beaten 4-0 at home last year, will be the biggest test of his captaincy.
However, in the absence of their two most dependable performers in Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, their batting department lacks the credibility of the time when they hosted India.
As far as the experience of their frontline bowling department is concerned, only Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle can claim to have a firsthand experience of the playing atmosphere in India. Their biggest concern is the absence of a quality spin bowler. When compared with the visiting England side that defeated India last year, they are found lagging behind – as is evident from the absence of a world class spinner. Their spin department will be spearheaded by Nathan Lyon and Xavier Doherty (the second option to be exercised on rank turners only) whereas England had Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar.
To wrap it up, keeping in perspective the weaknesses of each team, it promises to be an evenly contested series and will hopefully tell us the shape of things to come.
For some (read: Sehwag) this might be a final chance to perform before India set off for a difficult South African tour.