Can Australia get over Homework-Gate?
Mitchell Johnson (AAP)
The Australian cricket team faces one of its greatest tests of character over the next five days in the wake of the sensational of-field happenings of the past week.
Trailing 2-nil in the four Test series it must produce an unlikely victory at Mohali to have any chance of retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Even with a full complement of players to choose from it was going to be a tough assignment but with the standing down of Shane Watson, James Pattinson, Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Johnson, the task has become infinitely harder.
On paper prior to the series, Mohali was always going to be the venue that would most suit the Australian attack.
Unlike Chennai and Hyderabad, and Delhi to come, the pitch at the Punjab Cricket Association ground is not the typical spin-friendly Indian venue.
While it will provide something for the slow men as the match wears on, history shows that the quicks will relish the surface more than most in India as it will provide more pace and bounce.
Australia last played at the ground in October 2010 in the first Test of an abbreviated two-match series that coincided with the Delhi Commonwealth Games.
The match ended in a heartbreaking one-wicket loss with the hosts nervously chasing down a target of 216 to win.
Of the 39 wickets to fall over the five days, 25 of them fell to the pace bowlers – Zaheer Khan (8), Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger (5 apiece), Ben Hilfenhaus (4) and Ishant Sharma (3).
That was a far cry from the opening Test of this series at Chennai where the Indian spinners alone captured all twenty Australian wickets.
Australia’s handling of the ‘homeworkgate’ affair has left the tour selectors – of their own making – with very few pace options.
With Pattinson and Johnson stood down and the refusal to fly in a replacement for the injured Jackson Bird, there are only two genuine fast bowlers available – Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc with all-rounder Moises Henriques on-hand to provide back-up.
There are only thirteen men in total to choose from – although that is likely to be reduced to 12 with Matthew Wade struggling to overcome an ankle injury suffered while playing basketball between Tests.
He was unable to train on the two days leading into the Test with Brad Haddin almost certain to end his 12-month exile from Test ranks having flown in a few days ago as cover.
Starc will be returning to the side having made way for additional spin resources for the Hyderabad Test after failing to capture a wicket in the opening encounter through 25 overs which cost him 75 runs.
Siddle, the team’s primary strike bowler over the Australian summer in the absence of an injured Pattinson, has once again been his usual lionhearted self but reward for effort has been scant with a return of 1-162 from 58.3 overs across both Tests.
Hence, the absence of Pattinson will improve exceptionally telling.
He has been the only consistently threatening Australian quick with eight wickets across the opening two Tests – the most by a pace bowler on either side – including 5-96 in India’s first innings at Chennai.
Both Siddle and Starc will need to have a quantum leap in form, especially if Australia finds itself in the field on the opening day, if it is to restrict the Indian batting.
Henriques, in his debut series, has been steady and economical – 1-93 off 38 overs – but seldom threatening.
Taking in a pace battery that has just two wickets to its name through the first two Tests is hardly the stuff to inspire confidence.
And then, of course, there is the spin department.
Despite capturing four wickets on debut in the last Test, off-spinning all-rounder Glenn Maxwell will likely miss out.
Nathan Lyon, Australia’s number one spinner for the 18 months leading into this series, was unceremoniously discarded after the opening Test on the back of match figures of 4-244 off 52.3 overs at Chennai.
Doherty replaced him for Hyderabad and while more economical, he struggled to turn the ball and as a result never looked likely to pressure the Indian batsmen.
But with Lyon certain to return the selectors are unlikely to want both he and Maxwell in the same XI given their economy rates so far in the series – 4.64 and 4.88 runs per over respectively.
Doherty is likely to get the nod as the second spinner given he can likely tie up one end and allow Lyon to attack at the other.
Lyon’s return to the fold will no doubt produce some raised eyebrows.
After his axing following the first Test, coach Mickey Arthur said that he needed to go away and work on his confidence and his technique.
Lyon then publicly denied that he had deficiencies in either area.
The Indian selectors have finally lost patience with 104-Test veteran Virender Sehwag.
His recent lean form at the top of the order has continued through the opening two Tests with his three innings producing just 27 runs.
As a result of his absence the Indian top order, with regard to matches played, looks thin.
While Sachin Tendulkar will be turning out for his 197th Test appearance, the remainder of the top-five number just 41 Tests between them – Virat Kohli (16), Murali Vijay (14), Cheteshwar Pujara (11), while Shikhar Dhawan will be making his debut.
It may look light on experience but Pujara, Vijay and Kohli have each made centuries in the series and provided Michael Clarke and his men with numerous headaches.
While the bowling combination that Australia will field poses little threat to India on disclosed form this series, its top-order batting also remains a problem.
Khawaja’s inability to remember his homework assignment has seen him squander a certain recall.
His slip-up has paved the way for the woefully out of form Phil Hughes to earn another cap.
His four innings in the series have produced a mere 25 runs at a strike rate of 30.
He has been akin to a bunny in the headlights when facing the spinners, falling to them on all four occasions in facing 37 balls without scoring a run.
He may drop down to number four should Clarke, who has flagged his own promotion from number five, moves up to first drop.
Openers David Warner (28.5) and Ed Cowan (27.2) have shown some girt at times but both have had several soft dismissals.
One of the greatest hindrances to Cowan’s game is his inability to rotate the strike.
His series strike rate of 36 has allowed the Indian spinners to drop seamlessly into a groove.
Once again so much of Australia’s fortunes at the crease will rest with Clarke who has looked a cut above his teammates with 268 runs at 67.
For the sake of the team he must approach the crease with a clear and uncluttered mind, despite the turmoils of the week.
The likely inclusion of Brad Haddin for the injured Wade will bolster the batting as he is a fine player of spin.
He has been in solid form for New South Wales in Sheffield Shield ranks this season – 468 runs at 52 – but he will need to make a rapid and smooth transition to Indian conditions.
All in all, I expect the Australian side to show a considerable improvement on its first two outings – admittedly not a difficult task given the extremely low base it is coming from.
But, victory is another matter.
It is hard to see them breaking the home side’s unbeaten start to the series.
One more victory by M S Dhoni’s men will see them regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
It will be a much enjoyed and triumphal performance given the most recent series, in Australia last summer, was swept by Clarke’s team 4-nil.
It is a stark reminder of just how quickly the wheel can turn.
Australia will be hoping it can produce a similar turnaround between now and the end of the Ashes series in a few months’ time.
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.