India in Australia | A storied rivalry looks to add more engrossing chapters

Friday’s ODI will mark India’s return to international cricket after eight months; will face a hungry Australia desperate for revenge after the 2018-19 loss Down Under

In a year that witnessed a virus forcing mankind to be static, it is time for Indian cricket to get back on the rails. The southern hemisphere beckons and Virat Kohli’s men are set to kick-off their Australian tour with the first ODI at Sydney on Friday. And over the next eight weeks, the Men in Blue will play two more ODIs and three Twenty20Is before slipping into their whites for the subsequent four Tests.

Interestingly, it was from Australia’s Trans-Tasman neighbour New Zealand that India flew back after the second Test concluded at Christchurch on March 2. And now, after a prolonged gap forced by COVID-19, the team is back Down Under. Most of the stars played the recent Indian Premier League, but as members of a united national team, the Sydney clash would be their first after eight months.

Kohli and company will step into a storied rivalry on par with the Ashes and Indo-Pak encounters. India and Australia have carved their unique niche, with the miracle at Eden Gardens in 2001 remaining top of the charts. Kohli’s men have to add their share of engrossing chapters. They did that with aplomb during the 2018-19 tour in which the Test and ODI series were won. But this time, more needs to be done, be it coping with bio-bubbles or devising plans against a strong host.

Australia has the services of Steve Smith and David Warner besides other promising batsmen, notably Marnus Labuschagne, and an incisive pace attack featuring Mitchell Starc. Smith and Warner were absent in the 2018-19 series following the ball-tampering controversy.

In contrast, India will miss Rohit Sharma (sore hamstring) in the limited-over encounters. However, there is an opportunity to seize for newly elevated vice-captain K.L. Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Mayank Agarwal, Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey. Hope floats too for left-arm seamer T. Natarajan.

Post-Dhoni era

And as the outfit dons a 1990s inspired retro-jersey, it also marks India’s maiden foray in the post-M.S. Dhoni era. The former skipper’s shoes are massive and whether the balancing and explosive role he combined together would sit easy on Hardik Pandya or Ravindra Jadeja remains to be seen.

The longer format would offer a tougher scrutiny, especially with Kohli taking paternity leave after the first Test. There is uncertainty around Rohit being fit in time for the last two Tests, and also about getting past the quarantine clause. Much would hinge on Cheteshwar Pujara continuing being the bulwark. Meanwhile, Ajinkya Rahane will have the added pressure of leading in the last three Tests.

What would satiate the Indian appetite through the tour is the presence of speedsters Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, who could be a handful both for Aaron Finch’s men in limited-over skirmishes and Tim Paine and colleagues in the Tests. With fans being allowed, though with curbs on their numbers, live audience-involvement would bolster the players. Sport needs an audience and India against Australia has its own splendid charms.

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