PUNE: Steve Smith’s Australia have the chance of halting India’s Test juggernaut in a series between the world’s top two sides starting this week which promises to be yet another feisty encounter between the arch rivals.
After India stretched their unbeaten run to 19 Tests this month, several former stars are even daring to predict another whitewash against Australia who have a miserable recent record on the sub-continent.
Australia meanwhile have been unusually respectful of their opponents in the build-up but Smith expects his team to greet India with a barrage of sledging when the contest begins in Pune on Thursday.
“The guys are in a great frame of mind, we’re ready to go. We’re pumped,” vice-captain David Warner said after Australia drew a weekend warm-up against India A.
Australia have a chance of knocking India off the top of the Test rankings but Virat Kohli’s men have won their last six series and are overwhelming favourites to continue that run.
Australia’s last tour of India in 2013 under captain Michael Clarke was a disaster as they went down 4-0 and four of the team were sent home after refusing to do homework set by coach Mickey Arthur.
Team spirit has recovered under Smith’s captaincy, but they were thrashed 3-0 last year in Sri Lanka when their shortcomings against spin were exposed along with their lack of a match-winning slow bowler.
While their former paceman Glenn McGrath used to be notorious for getting up the opposition’s nose by forecasting clean sweeps, Australia have been getting a taste of their own medicine.
India’s ex-captain Sourav Ganguly has predicted a 4-0 win for the hosts while veteran spinner Harbhajan Singh has called Smith’s team the weakest ever Australian squad.
– ‘Bradman of Bowling’ –
Indian confidence is largely founded on the form of skipper Kohli who has hit four double centuries since July.
They also possess the current best bowler in the world in Ravichandran Ashwin whom McGrath’s old captain Steve Waugh recently branded the “Bradman of Bowling”, the ultimate compliment by an Australian.
Kohli’s recent form has also drawn comparisons with the late Donald Bradman, who averaged 99.94 in Tests, but never played in India.
And Warner, not one to shirk from an onfield confrontation, has warned his teammates not to wind up Kohli.
“Virat Kohli is one of those players, if you niggle at him, it either makes him better or if you get under his skin, he’ll probably get even better,” said Warner.
Nevertheless, Smith wants his players to get in the face of the Indians, telling reporters: “If they want to get into a battle verbally then, if that gets the best out of them, go for it”.
Ever since Harbhajan was accused of calling Andrew Symonds a “monkey” in the 2008 Sydney Test, matches between the sides have never been far from boiling point.
Harbhajan showed he has lost none of his abililty to stir things up by dismissing the 2017 vintage as a pale comparison to its predecessors.
– ‘Weakest ever tourists’ –
“In my opinion, looking at the composition, this is the weakest Australian side to tour India. I don’t think this team has the wherewithal to cope with a quality Indian side in the Indian conditions. It can again be 4-0,” Harbhajan told the Press Trust of India.
The last series between the two sides ended in a 2-0 victory for Australia Down Under but their humbling at the hands of an unfancied Sri Lanka is likely to weigh heavily on their minds.
Much will depend on whether the spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe can have an impact. They claimed four and three wickets respectively in the tourists’ only warm-up match in Mumbai are expected to play in Pune.
India are expected to stick with the line-up that comprehensively beat Bangladesh in Hyderabad earlier this month.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund, Hardik Pandya.
Australia: Steve Smith (capt), David Warner, Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steve O’Keefe, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade.