In these times of lopsided contests, the India-Australia one-day series comes as a breath of fresh air. While it is satisfying to watch your team dominate, there is nothing to match a solid, quality contest. It is difficult to attach context to this series as the focus is mainly on the build-up to the Twenty20 World Cup. But no one is complaining—India versus Australia is a big draw anytime.
That the visitors are at full strength has raised expectations of an exciting, all-out battle. Australia won a pulsating series 3-2 the last time they visited, in March last year. But David Warner and Steve Smith are back in the squad, and to add spice the latest batting sensation, Marnus Labuschagne, is expected to be blooded in limited-overs cricket during the three-match series.
India captain Virat Kohli described it as a big opportunity.
"Look, when you are playing Australia, you don't look at the relevance of the series. It's about playing against the best. The way they are playing their cricket now, after Steve and David have come back, it's pretty intense. They are challenging every team and are dominating a few teams as well. We, along with Australia, are probably the top sides in the world as far as the balance is concerned. Whether it's relevant or irrelevant, that's for people to decide. We as a team are excited to play Australia, in our conditions, to test ourselves against the best. In the year of the World Cup, as many games we play, it is going to benefit us, especially white-ball cricket," Kohli said.
From the days of Allan Border and Sunil Gavaskar, there have always been fireworks when the cricket giants have clashed. In the last couple of seasons, India have gone from strength to strength and their fans have watched them dominate with boring regularity while Australia regrouped brilliantly last summer after a period of turmoil. It's a series where the margin of error will be thin.
"They are a stronger side than the one that came to India last time. But they still won the series last time. In the series before that, they played a full strength side but we won. You can have the most experienced and the most skilled players in your squad, but if you don't play well as a team in that series, you won't win. That's what happened to us last time and when we went to Australia, it's what happened to them. That shows how competitive the series between these two teams are; it's never a dominating series, the margin is always 3-2 or 2-1. Maybe five games would have been exciting. But taking on Australia, even in our conditions, it's always a good and a tough challenge because of the skill set and mind set they bring on to the field," Kohli said.
India will heavily depend on the top three of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli.
Sharma returns after being rested. The yellow brigade brings the best out of him. His overall average is 49.14, but against Australia it is 61.73, with 2037 runs in 37 matches with seven hundreds (top score 209). Kohli is not far behind with 1727 runs in 37 matches at an average of 53.97, with eight hundreds. Dhawan has aggregated 975 runs in 24 matches against them, his fourth hundred coming when the sides last met at the 2019 World Cup.
Their battle with Starc and Co will be fascinating. For the first time in 14 months, Australia are playing a full-strength pace attack in white-ball format with Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood all here, a combination which Glenn McGrath says "is as good as any Australia attack ever".
Next up will be leg-spinner Adam Zampa. In 10 matches, he has picked 15 wickets against India, all top-order batsmen except Ravindra Jadeja. Five of his wickets are Virat Kohli (thrice in 10 innings) and Sharma (twice in 10).
Kohli acknowledged Zampa's threat. "Zampa was pretty good last time when Australia played here. He was probably one bowler who had more belief than others is what I felt. Throughout the game, even when he was hit for boundaries, he kept coming at the batsmen, trying to get them out. His mindset was a standout for them, and he made those important breakthroughs in the games they won after having lost two. We have to be at our best against them in the middle-overs and not think too much about what he's going to do."
India will look to counter Zampa through the left-handed Dhawan, though Kohli has a selection headache. Given his rich form, it will be cruel to omit KL Rahul. Kohli said the team is looking to fit in all three—Sharma, Dhawan and Rahul—even it means the captain will have to drop down the order for Rahul to bat at No. 3.
"All guys in form is always good for the team … You obviously want the best player available and then choose a combination that suits the team. We will figure out… There might be a possibility all three will play."
India have an equally lethal pace attack with world's top-ranked bowler, Jasprit Bumrah, back after being sidelined due to a lower back stress fracture. He and Mohammad Shami form a formidable pair that can match Cummins & Co. Bumrah makes a difference at any phase of the game. Shami is one of the most skilful operators with the ability to seam the ball and produce late movement.
Ideally, India would want a slow turner to cash in on the home advantage. But if the Wankhede Stadium wicket plays true to its nature it will be a sporting track with good bounce and offer value for strokes. Kohli called it the best playing surface along with Adelaide.
"I was just chatting with Ravi bhai (coach Shastri) and I said it's probably the best pitch to bat in India. Not to take anything away from what bowlers can do here. Even in one-day cricket you can get pace and bounce and sometimes seam as well under lights. As a batsman, when you get in, it's probably along with Adelaide the best batting wicket I've played on. That's something as a batsman you always come back to and relish the opportunity to play on. I like the wicket because it's generally good, and true to either skill, which I like to see at international level."