After Australian cricket reached its lowest ebb in recent history against South Africa in Hobart in mid-November 2016, four consecutive Test wins, and the successful debuts of Peter Handscomb and Matthew Renshaw, were cause for optimism through the latter half of December and January. A 2-0 series loss to New Zealand in the second leg of the Chappell-Hadlee trophy and surrendering the Number 1 One Day Ranking could be forgiven. Steven Smith and David Warner gained welcome respite through a particularly grueling period of the schedule and through the two completed one-day matches in New Zealand, Marcus Stoinis perhaps started to part the cloud that has long sat over the number 6 position in Australia’s test lineup.
However, the joy de vivre the debutants offered on the field and the accompanying feeling of renewal felt by the Australian public will be short lived if Australia’s performances in India are not credible. Much has been made of the fact that England, despite perishing to India 4-0 in their recent series, were competitive. Much of the credit for this should go to Cook and Root for their application and experience, though debutants Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings showed commendable concentration at the top of the order. It will not be enough for Australian batsman to remain planted to the crease and shell shocked when a ball shoots through at ankle height, as seems to have been the case on recent tours to the subcontinent. Successful scoring avenues, sound defence to the spinners and the ability to soak up long periods of pressure will be the key to success for Australia’s batsman.
The two youngsters in Australia’s batting line-up bear comparison to two greats of the game, in the manner in which they are likely to approach the Indian spinners. Matthew Renshaw bears more than a passing resemblance to Matthew Hayden in his style. He has been very open about his intention to mimic Hayden’s sweep heavy approach to the sub-continent, which was hugely fruitful for the statuesque opener in 2001. Renshaw, after building a platform, is also willing to use his feet to spinners, aptly demonstrated against Yasir Shah in the Sydney Test. Perhaps the most exciting facet of Renshaw’s game is his ability to bat time. As Steven Smith has noted, this will be crucial if Australia are going to be competitive this series. Although Warner’s all out aggression is scintillating viewing, it will ultimately matter for little if Australia fall to be 7/180 at stumps on day one. India have the batting talent to score quickly, particularly against our spinners, and amass an insurmountable target. If Renshaw can provide a foil for Warner, tire out the opposition attack and give Australia’s spinners some decent rough spots to aim at, his contribution to the side will be far greater than the number next to his initials.
For Handscomb, his willingness to use his feet to the spinners is reminiscent of a young and limber Michael Clarke, repeatedly launching Anil Kumble down the ground on his test debut at Bangalore in 2004. Having offensive tools against Ashwin and Jadeja will be hugely important. However, Handscomb will need to temper his predilection for playing late off the back foot. The glide down to third man is clearly a shot that comes naturally to him, and is one of his strengths. It’s a relatively risk-free shot on pitches with consistent bounce; in India it is a recipe for embarrassment.
The recent colossal totals that India have amassed, driven by the irresistible form of Virat Kohli (who has now made four test double hundreds in four consecutive series), make for an incredibly ominous build up to this series. However, the Australian bowlers need not despair entirely. One idiosyncrasy of this series is that Australia’s two spinners bear more than a passing resemblance in style and approach to their Indian counterparts. Stephen O’Keefe will likely bowl quite straight and rely on natural variation and assistance from the pitch for edges, LBW decisions and bat pad catches, much in the same way Ravi Jadeja has done successfully in recent times for India. For Nathan Lyon, a man baggaged with the nickname GOAT, he faces a much more daunting task in trying to replicate the form of Ravichandra Ashwin, who only a few days ago became the fastest man to reach 250 Test wickets, achieving the milestone in just 45 test matches.
Brad Haddin wrote recently about the daunting task of playing spin in India. He noted that more often than not it can be the natural variation, rather than the unplayable monster, that undoes a batsman. Much in the same way that the cavernous cracks at the WACA can penetrate a batsman’s psyche and force a false shot, the sight of a ball turning at right angles can make the ensuing gentle straight one seem unplayable. When you introduce 38-degree heat, 83% humidity and four men around the bat, the experience must border on hallucinogenic. You’re seeing things that aren’t there, misjudging things that are and beginning to question the very fabric of time and space. It becomes pretty clear that being able to face out Xavier Doherty on a day four SCG pitch doesn’t really cut it.
In this setting it will be interesting to see when young upstart Mitchell Swepson is introduced to the cauldron. Having performed well for the BBL side formerly sponsored by Linc Energy, Swepson’s career trajectory has followed the tried and tested path for anyone who can land a decent wrong’un (and who doesn’t wear a headband) in the post-Warne era – India in India. Like many who have come before him (barring the aforementioned GOAT), Swepson has been picked on potential and T20 form; he certainly has not been picked on First Class merit given he has only taken 41 wickets at 32.82. It could prove to be an inspired inclusion. However, given that Warne averaged 47.18 in 14 tests against India (both home and away) the chances of that appear slim.
And for all this – for all the excitement provided by the new breed that have offered Australian cricket fans a sense of optimism that seemed eviscerated following that South African series – there is a lingering sense of déjà vu coming into this series. Marsh and Khawaja are fighting it out for the final batting spot (although, if some reports are believed it may be Renshaw who makes way for Khawaja, with Marsh coming in at six, a decision that would be incredibly short sighted), Glenn Maxwell has inexplicably been included, and Australia’s fortunes are likely to be tied to the key NSW triumvirate of Smith, Warner and Starc.
Although Warner’s dynamism and Starc’s reverse swing will be pivotal, for Smith in particular one gets the sense that this is likely to be a coming of age tour. When India bat for two sessions without losing a wicket, as they will surely do, all eyes will be on Smith to see how he responds; when Lyon is hit for consecutive sixes, as he surely will be, all eyes will be on Smith to see whether he puts a man on the long-on boundary straight away, or whether he encourages Garry to give the next one even more flight; and when Australia lose three quick wickets, which they certainly will do, all eyes will be on Smith to see whether he can take control, anchor a partnership and play they sort of career defining innings that this series demands. We can’t wait to see how he responds.
 For Starc and indeed Hazlewood, the 2004 series victory, where McGrath, Gillespie and Kasprowicz bowled a dry 5th stump line and used reverse and conventional swing to breach the Indian defences, provides a useful template for success