For a grim fortnight cricket has been on everybody’s minds, but no one has been thinking much about the cricket. There’s a relief to having a game about to start.
In Adelaide on Tuesday, Australia and India get their rearranged Test series underway. Not that a game will make us forget the untimely death of Phillip Hughes, but at least it will be a focal point to help contextualise that loss.
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The venue is apt, given Hughes’ last game was for South Australia, and both sides will want to make it a fitting tribute to the man, as well as a way to bring closure to the initial stage of grieving.
The likely result should be a Test match played in good spirit, without the behavioural excesses that mar some international contests. India have shown dignity and understanding during the unprecedented difficulties of this tour to date, and will aim to retain that détente.
It remains to be seen whether the Australians can put emotion behind them. It’s far too simplistic to say they should win to pay tribute to a fallen friend. An emotional letdown is just as likely, and the pressure a tribute creates can be detrimental to those involved.
There should be no expectation. What happens on the field represents nothing about feelings off it. It’s unlikely, but the media and viewers around this match need to show restraint when attributing symbolic significance to ordinary actions.
Loosen the grip and let them play.
Adelaide is talked up as a spin-friendly pitch that will suit India, but really it will suit batsmen. Still, as we saw with Mitchell Johnson’s devastating spell there last summer, there can be more than enough for those with pace.
One thing on Australia’s side will be the consistency of their XI. The delayed start has given five extra days to both captains, Michael Clarke and MS Dhoni, as they recover from injuries that looked set to keep both out of the first Test.
After a fortnight in which his off-field leadership has been given the most extreme test, and in which he has responded with incredible strength, it would take a missing limb to keep Clarke from the match that will mark the broadest public salute to his close friend Hughes.
Should Clarke play, Australia could go in with only one change to the Ashes side that disassembled England. David Warner has reportedly been among those struggling most after witnessing Hughes accident, but one imagines he’d prefer to play. Chris Rogers will open alongside him.
No questions have been raised by Darren Lehmann over Shane Watson’s spot, meaning he should start at No. 3 where he’s made recent runs. Clarke would bat four, Steve Smith at five, Brad Haddin at seven, then the Ashes attack of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon.
The only potential changes to the Ashes side might be up-and-coming seamer Josh Hazlewood coming in for Siddle, and Mitchell Marsh retaining the No. 6 spot where he recently batted well in the United Arab Emirates.
If two all-rounders in the top six is deemed excessive, Mitchell Marsh might miss out in favour of his brother Shaun, who would probably bat at four while pushing Clarke and Smith down a spot.
Shaun could also be a straight swap for Watson at three, but Watson’s bowling is far cannier than Mitchell Marsh’s has yet become, and anyone who gets dropped for Shaun Marsh is well beyond stiff.
India have far more uncertainty about their line-up. First is whether Dhoni will play – the plan was to rest him as a precaution after a broken thumb, which had the added benefit of giving Virat Kohli a low-pressure single Test as captain.
India’s top five is solid, with their new generation having established themselves: Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay to open, Cheteshwar Pujara at first drop, Kohli the lynchpin and Ajinkya Rahane the recovery expert at five. The question is what happens from there.
If Dhoni misses, Wriddhiman Saha would take the gloves. A good batsman with a very strong domestic record, both Saha and Dhoni could comfortably bat at six, but will they want to boost their batting or bowling?
If India play four bowlers, Rohit Sharma has made an irresistible recent case to be the sixth batsman. But Dhoni often prefers five bowlers.
All-rounder Ravindra Jadeja is yet to display his batting ability in the Test arena, and his left-arm spin might not be useful on Australian pitches. Off-spinner Ravi Ashwin can bat, and could hold down the spot at a pinch.
Then there’s the new weapon of leg-spinner Karn Sharma, someone the Australians have seen little of. Good leg-spin bewitches opponents, and Pakistan’s Yasir Shah did a number on the Aussies only a few weeks ago.
Swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar will miss the first two Test with an ankle injury, but may not have played in any case given his slower pace and the dry conditions. Mind you, Ajit Agarkar won India a Test here in 2003 with a superb display of swing bowling.
The pace options therefore consist of the ever-present Ishant Sharma, who got some menace back in England this year; the short, quick and bustling Mohammed Shami; and the less experienced fast men Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron.
Rare for India is the prospect of picking three bowlers who top 140 kilometres per hour with regularity. There is some prospect, then, of a four-paceman battery being employed with a sole spinner.
More likely though we’d see that in Brisbane, with two spinners for the Adelaide Oval. If India go with four bowlers, the conservative picks would be Ashwin, Ishant, Shami and one of the faster men, even though the gamble on the leg-spinner would be well worth taking.
It will be interesting to see how India approach this series. Their reputation for being beaten here precedes them, but is built solely on the whitewash last time they toured. Before that they were highly competitive, drawing a series in 2003/04 and being robbed of a series by umpire Steve Bucknor in 2007/08.
As much as their batsmen are supposed to struggle here, they have a new breed forging their own stories after the recent greats bowed out of the game. Each of their top five has played some extraordinary innings, and three have centuries in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand among them.
All of which means there is some good cricket to be played. There are those who find the grieving for Hughes to be maudlin, and would like to move on. There are those still deeply affected by his departure, even if they struggle to explain why. Neither response makes the other invalid. We all deal with these things differently.
Like it or not, Hughes’ own story and our collective response mean that this series will not be entirely about the game – it could never be – but at least the fortunes of this new breed from India will lend the contest some cricketing intrigue.