Virat Kohli was supposed to be the focal point of the Australian summer. Even before he set a foot on Australian soil, newspapers and broadcasters left no stone unturned to squeeze the value out of the most followed cricketer in current times. Given that he was to leave after the first Test only enhanced the value associated with each appearance of his.
As it turned out, concussion has swiftly taken over the limelight from the Indian captain just as we were about to enter the crucial phase of the tour. First, the Aussies cried foul about India bending the rule to their advantage after the first T20I. Now, two of their own players – Will Pucovski and Cameron Green – were left concussed in the two warm-up games. This resulted in Pucovski being out of contention for the first Test and participation of Green in uncertain.
Usually, by this time, ex-Australian players start putting their money on their team whitewashing the opposition. With Steve Smith back in the side and Kohli available for only a quarter of the series, these prophecies might make all the more sense. But, right now the hosts are so engrossed in finalizing the openers for the first Test that all the rhetoric has taken a backseat. All bets are off till the first Test is over.
All was well with the Australian squad till the third ODI in which David Warner suffered a groin injury. Their Test squad to avenge the loss to India in 2018/19 looked set 12 months ago when they finished the home summer unbeaten. They had also got their wish as India agreed on two of their demands – playing a day-night Test and to one at the Gabba. Now with Warner out and Joe Burns struggling to buy a run, it is anyone’s guess as to who will walk out to open the innings for Australia in the first Test in Adelaide. Australia will not get their perfect XI at least to get the series underway.
A tall order for India
There is a fight of a lifetime waiting for the Indian players. The Aussies must have felt hard done by after India beat them two summers ago when they were without Smith and Warner. Now, they will be licking their lips with a chance to avenge the loss against a Kohli-less India. His absence will test the attitude of each and every member of the squad. It will be a chance for the shy ones like Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara to rise from Kohli’s shadows. From the third Test onwards, the two senior men will get assistance from Rohit Sharma who is fit and ready to join the squad. Rohit is yet to do anything of substance in Tests outside the subcontinent. But, he has considerably improved his red-ball game and if anyone can remotely match Kohli in stature in India it is him.
After the first Test, India will need someone or a bunch of players to replace Kohli in spirit. While he is around, the Aussies will be vary of using verbal exchange as a medium to lift themselves up. All such niceties will seize to exist once Kohli leaves the side. But, it will be naïve for the Aussies to forget that it was Pujara and not Kohli who was their biggest tormentor in 2018/19. Verbal abuse or not, Pujara is adept in putting mental disintegration into practice. And he will know that it is the same set of bowlers this time around whom he easily toyed with two years back.
For all the discussion about the strengths of the two sides, the amount of impact that the toss has in cricket is ironic. Especially on pitches that are likely to come up in Australia - flat, easy to bat on, with cracks opening up on days four and five. Even the pink ball will get soft early and can result in a run-making feast as we saw in the warm-up game. Winning the toss puts one in a position of advantage unless you are as kind-hearted as a certain Kiwi skipper who sent the hosts in on Boxing Day last summer. Only to rue the decision by the same afternoon.
Talking about the Kiwis, they are also breathing down India’s neck for the second spot on the World Test Championship Table. If they manage to beat Pakistan in both the Tests at home, they will end up with 70% of total points earned. For India to rest above them after their home series against England, they need to finish with a margin of at least 5-3 in their remaining eight Tests. Hence, India have more than pride at stake in the four Tests to follow. A 4-0 loss that the Aussies might fancy will also end India’s hopes for yet another final of an ICC event.
The hosts will believe that once they are able to sort their opener conundrum, everything else will fall into place by itself. Smith is back and “found his hands” weeks ago in the ODI series. Warner is sure to turn up sometime soon. But, for India, the result of the series might just depend on how they tackle the threat of the player whose name pops up in everyone’s mind when we hear the words ‘concussion sub’.