x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A change can do India and Australia good ahead of Test series

The Test series between India and Australia should provide answers as to what state the two teams are in, writes Dileep Premachandran.

India bowler Harbhajan Singh, who has played just once since the tour of England in 2011, will win his 100th cap.
India bowler Harbhajan Singh, who has played just once since the tour of England in 2011, will win his 100th cap.

When India and Australia played out a 1-1 draw in Steve Waugh's final Test series in 2003/04, it was cricket's equivalent of a top-of-the-table clash.

The four-Test contest that starts in Chennai today is between two sides hoping to recover lost ground. Australia, with 12 wins and just three defeats in their last 20 Tests, have handled transition pretty well, although they go into this series with just three players who have taken part in a Test match in India.

India have lost 10 of their last 20 Tests, and the 2-1 reverse against England was their first home loss in nearly a decade.

Change is very much the central theme in their dressing room as well, but it will be the old stalwarts that are central to their chances of winning this series.

One of them, Harbhajan Singh, who has played just once since the tour of England in 2011, will win his 100th cap, 15 years after he made his debut as a 17 year old against Mark Taylor's Australian side.

Three years later, he took 32 wickets against a Waugh-led Australia as India battled back from one down to win an epic three-match series.

Harbhajan's form in domestic cricket scarcely merited a recall, but with the bowling so listless and lacking direction against England, the selectors have banked on his intensity to fire up the side. There will also no doubt be a barb or two out in the middle.

A few days after he made a 4-0 prediction for the series, Harbhajan was at it again on the eve of the game.

"This [Australian] team, most have hardly played in India," he said. "Most of them have played in the IPL [Indian Premier League], but not in the longer format.

"But Australians come hard at you, whatever team they might have come with. That's one thing they have. You've got be there and focus on your job, rather than thinking if they're coming here for the first time."

The Australia Michael Clarke, who will hope that some of the inexperienced members of his side repeat his 2004 success - he scored a brilliant 151 on debut in Bangalore - harboured no illusions as to the task in front of him.

Australia have won just one series in India since 1969/70, and the dry brown Chennai surface looked tailor-made for spin.

"We have tried hard to prepare as well as we can," he said.

"I am pretty confident that this wicket will spin, and also pretty confident with the preparations that we have had for 10 days since being in India.

"Now it is about going out and having confidence in your own ability. Playing spin is no different to playing fast bowling in my opinion. You need to have the courage to stick to a plan whether you make zero or 100."

Clarke announced his XI on Wednesday, giving Moises Henriques the opportunity to fly in his family to watch his debut if he so desired.

Born in Funchal on the island of Madeira, two years after Cristiano Ronaldo, role of Henriques will be that of a seam-bowling all-rounder. With only Nathan Lyon picked as a specialist spinner, Henriques, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson will have to shoulder quite a burden in hot and humid conditions.

Going with a pace-heavy attack saw England slump to a nine-wicket defeat in Ahmedabad in the opening Test of their series.

Clarke, however, refused to let that influence his thinking.

"I saw the England matches," he said. "After the first Test, they brought in [Monty] Panesar, and he had a huge impact. But it's silly to say that we should play like somebody else. We will play our brand of cricket, the Australian way, and stick to our strengths."

As they did in Nagpur against England, India could well line up with three specialist spinners and Ravindra Jadeja as a spin-bowling all-rounder.

With that combination unlikely to be persisted with throughout the series, the Chennai Test could well be a face-off between Harbhajan and Ravichandran Ashwin for the off-spinner's slot.

When they were No 1 in the Test rankings, India relied heavily on Virender Sehwag for explosive starts that rattled the opposition.

Sehwag, now 34, will play this series wearing spectacles that have -4.5 corrective lenses. There is no better venue for him to get his eye in than Chennai, where he made a triple hundred against South Africa and averages 101.

If Australia win 2-0 or better, they will replace England at No 2 in the ICC rankings.

For India to get back to that position, they will need to fulfil Harbhajan's 4-0 prophecy. A 1-0 success or better will be enough to take them past Pakistan to No 4.

In these troubled times, you sense even Harbhajan would settle for that.



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