What are Australia’s chances in India?

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Australian team members. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

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Australian Test series wins on Indian soil are about as rare as the Swedish sash at the Miss Universe contest being worn by a brunette.

Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting both played 168 Tests and yet throughout that time neither played an active role in an Australian series victory in India.

Ponting got closest in 2004, but he missed the first three Tests due to injury and by the time he returned for the fourth and final encounter in Mumbai, Adam Gilchrist had skippered the side to a series winning 2-0 lead.

Victory in that series was Australia’s first in India since the Bill Lawry led side of 1969-70.

Five subsequent tours prior to 2004 resulted in four Indian series wins and one draw. The last two tours – in 2008-09 and 2010-11 – both resulted in victories to the host.

So what chance of an Australian win when Michael Clarke leads his team on a four-Test tour starting late next month?

It would appear there are only three players certain of selection who have played at Test level in India before – Clarke, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle.

That may swell to five if Shane Watson is risked and Brad Haddin gets the nod as the back-up keeper to Matthew Wade.

History has shown some of the country’s finest batsmen have been undone in India – Ponting (average of 26.5 from 14 Tests), Gilchrist (28.5 from 7), Justin Langer (30.0 from 7).

The selectors were dealt a cruel blow when Mike Hussey stunned the cricket world by announcing his retirement prior to this month’s SCG Test against Sri Lanka.

In the 11 Tests Hussey played on the sub-continent he averaged 63.0 and his ability to counter class spin bowling in the middle order will be sorely missed, not to mention his experience and cool head.

Clarke’s Test debut in Bangalore in 2004 was nothing short of stunning as he literally danced his way to 151 against Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.

The way he took up the challenge with positive footwork and a desire to leave his crease was reminiscent of Kim Hughes at his best.

He will be very keen however to atone for a very poor series in India in 2009-10, when he could only manage scores of 14, 4, 14 and 3.

The weight on his shoulders will be Atlas-like, as he will be surrounded by a relatively inexperienced top seven at Test level.

The exception will be 38-Test veteran Watson, if he makes the cut, which he should.

He was the leading run-scorer on the last Indian tour with scores of 126, 56, 57 and 32 for a series average of 67.8 as an opener.

I would return him to that position in place of Ed Cowan, who has hardly set the world on fire in his 13 Tests to date – 722 runs at 32.8.

I can’t see Cowan being the answer in England at the top of the order and while it may be harsh, I would be leaving him at home.

If Watson, as he has stated, opts to cut right back on his bowling, the opening position seems to be his best, especially on this tour given his recent success in India.

Given his hard hands, similar to Gilchrist, he is better suited at the top of the order rather than facing spin as soon as comes to the crease.

Interestingly the selectors have removed Phil Hughes from the last three one day internationals against the West Indies in order for him to head to India early to acclimatise to the conditions.

David Warner and Hughes in particular, should they get through the new ball, would be well advised to adopt the sweep shot as a weapon that can help blunt the Indian spinners.

It is a shot that Watson plays well. Matt Hayden used the sweep to amazing effect in 2000-01 when he made 549 runs at 109.8.

Regardless of what shot selection they choose, one of the keys will be to rotate the strike. And that goes for the entire batting order, especially against the Indian spinners.

Allowing them to operate exclusively to the one batsman for a full over may prove fatal.

Once again, the home side will construct its attack around spin – the grounds chosen will largely to see that with Chennai, Hyderabad, Mohali and Delhi the venues

In August last year when India beat New Zealand in Hyderabad by an innings and 115 runs, spinners Ravi Ashwin (12 wickets) and Pragyan Ojha (6) captured all bar two Black Caps’ wickets.

It was a similar affair in Delhi in November 2011 when Delhi last hosted a Test – this time it was the West Indies on the receiving end when Ashwin (9) and Ojha (6) again cleaned up.

Chennai is less of a spin paradise but nonetheless will prove bountiful for the slow men. Strangely the last Test encounter was in December 2008 when India downed England by six wickets.

The spinners claimed 17 of the 35 wickets to fall.

The ground that will perhaps best suit the Australian attack is Mohali where the last Test, in October 2010, saw India beat the Aussies by one wicket.

In that match it was the pacemen who did the bulk of the damage, with Zaheer Khan (8), Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger (5 apiece), Ben Hilfenhaus (4) and Ishant Sharma (3) doing the bulk of the damage.

Despite the fact several of the venues will be heavily biased towards spin, the fact Australia currently lacks quality slow bowlers will result in pace oriented attack by the tourists.

There will be a lot of interest in the regard to the spin options when the selectors announce their squad.

Nathan Lyon is a definite starter, despite the fact that he is yet to show he can be a determining factor late in matches. Aside from Lyon the cupboard is fairly bare.

Jon Holland’s shoulder injury has not allowed him to put his wares on display to the level the selectors would want.

Michael Beer, who had an outstanding Big Bash, is also currently sidelined with a shoulder injury, although his Sheffield Shield form this summer has been poor – eight wickets at 46.4.

The one spinner who has stood up is Steven O’Keefe. He has claimed 17 wickets at Shield level at 24.3 and has a tidy first-class career average of 27.3.

Being left-arm orthodox complements Lyon and his batting would also add depth to the line-up as he boasts a career average of 31.8.

One gets the feeling Glenn Maxwell will also be on the plane, although I do not necessarily believe two off-spinners in the one line-up would prove effective. I would not include him in the squad but the selectors seem enamoured by him.

Xavier Doherty is perhaps the only other spinner the selectors would have faith in but his first-class form has been lamentable this summer, with just two wickets at 80 from four Shield matches for Tasmania.

Clarke and Warner will be required to send down some overs during the series.

If the selectors do opt for three spinners in the tour party there will most likely be only four specialist quicks chosen.

James Pattinson may be in contention but given his injury run and the fact he will be a key in the Ashes I would be leaving at home and rather than Maxwell, I would be taking Ben Cutting.

He has had a fine Shield season for Queensland with 22 wickets at 18.8.

He is also more than capable with the bat with 348 runs at 38.7 this season at the staggering strike rate of 96, along with a century against South Australia.

I would have Haddin in the tour party as a back-up to Matthew Wade, while he also has the capability of playing as a specialist batsman – in fact he is probably the best option in that department from outside the current side.

Moises Henriques has had a breakout season for New South Wales with both bat and ball and deserves selection. I would also reward Alex Doolan for a fine season – 570 first-class runs at 81.4 including an unbeaten 161 against South Africa in the Australia A match earlier in the summer.

Australia’s fortunes will be boosted should Sachin Tendulkar’s form continue to waiver. His last eight Tests have produced a meagre 236 runs at 18.2 with just one half-century.

It would be a brave selection panel that jettisoned him midway through a series but if his run of failures continues it will have an effect on the rest of the team, given his status as a living god in India.

It will be fascinating also to follow the form of India’s new number three, Cheteshwar Pujara. The Australians got a sight of him on the last tour when he debuted in the opening Test in Bangalore.

Since then he has played seven Tests at home and scored a healthy 730 runs at 73.0, with his highest score an unbeaten 206 against England.

He has filled the void left by Rahul Dravid at first drop and is certainly in good form of late, having recently peeled off an innings of 352 in the Ranji Trophy.

I cannot see the current Australian side coming away with a series victory and feel the final score line will be 2-1 to India.

This is the squad I would choose for the tour:

Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, David Warner, Phil Hughes, Alex Doolan, Usman Khawaja, Moises Henriques, Matthew Wade, Brad Haddin, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson, Jackson Bird, Ben Cutting, Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe.

After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.
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