A tour of the Indian cricket team to Australia is one that is eagerly awaited by the followers of game in our country. The competitive spirit in which the game is played by the Aussies, the sporting nature of the wickets Down Under that ensure a fair result, and last, but not the least, the excellent coverage of the matches are some of the reasons for this. During the past, such tours were very rare, which also had added to its charm. After the first tour in 1947-48, the next one was in 1967-68, followed by another 10 years later. From the 1980s onwards the frequency of the visits increased to twice a decade. They went up further since 2011 and the one starting this month would be the fourth during the second decade of the 21st century.
The sole reason for the more frequent tours by the national side is on account of its improved stature, which has seen India emerge as one of the top sides in the game, across all formats. This privilege, which was given earlier to only England and the West Indies, also highlights the popularity of the Indian team, who have evolved into good tourists, of late. During the last visit, in 2018-19, India won both the Test and One-Day International (ODI) series, by identical margin of 2-1, thus justifying their billing as a topnotch side.
Before the onset of round the year cricketing activities, the selection of national side invariably used to be done based on the performances of aspirants in the Duleep Trophy matches, that were held before the tour. After the eclipse of domestic cricket calendar from the 1990s onwards, such selection matches went out of fashion and selectors were required to perform their task based on form of the players as judged from various matches in the domestic/international calendar. This year, selection became a tricky task given the fact that there were no matches due to the COVID-19 pandemic, other than the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) games in the UAE. Hence the squads announced for the tour, for the three formats, were selected based on performances in the IPL and past reputation.
The surprise selections for the longer duration version are Mohamed Siraj, Navdeep Saini and Shubhman Gill, none of who have played Test matches yet. Both Saini and Siraj have been having average seasons with the ball, with the former having a tally of five wickets from 11 matches and the latter eight from six games in the IPL. Siraj, though, bowled one remarkable spell for his side Royal Challengers Bangalore in the match against Kolkata Knight Riders where he picked up three wickets conceding only eight runs from four overs, which included two maidens. Saini has been part of the national side in white-ball cricket since last season and now he gets the opportunity to make it big in the toughest arena of all, the world of Test cricket. Both of them are on the wrong side of 20 and hence need to grab this opportunity with both hands, if they are to earn a name for themselves in the top rungs of the game.
Rich reward for Gill
Gill, on the other hand, has been enjoying a consistent run in this edition of the IPL. He was member of the national side that won the ICC U-19 World Cup in 2018 and has since made a smooth transition into the world of senior domestic cricket. His first foray into international arena, in the world of white-ball cricket, went fairly unnoticed. However, this Punjab youngster possess the technique and temperament to make it good in the most difficult and demanding of conditions. This tour offers him the opportunity to showcase his talent before arguably the most competitive side in contemporary cricket. If properly groomed, he could turn out to be the success story of this tour.
Two cricketers who have been presented with a chance for redeeming their career in Test cricket are K L Rahul and Rishabh Pant. Rahul has been in tremendous form in the IPL and is the prime contender for the “Orange Cap” awarded to the batsman with the highest run aggregate. His Test record of 2,006 runs in 30 matches at an average of 34.58 is decent, especially when one takes into consideration the four centuries scored on foreign soil. But he had displayed a lack of consistency at this level, which led to his exit from the side for Test cricket in September, 2019. He returns to the country where he made his debut in Test cricket in 2014 and would be looking forward to follow in the footsteps of his mentor Rahul Dravid by having a successful tour and cementing his place in the Test team.
In January, 2019, Pant had become the first Indian wicketkeeper-batsman to score a Test century in Australia, when he hit a stroke-filled unbeaten 159 in Sydney. However, he had been bogged down by a string of low scores after that. There is no dispute about the oodles of talent that young Pant is blessed with but many a time it appears that he has not been able to do justice to it to the fullest extent. This might be on account of the pressure brought by heightened expectations which this youngster has not been able to cope with. It is sad to note that Pant, one of the most exciting strikers of the ball in the middle order, does not find a place in the national side for the shorter formats. He would be looking to use this tour to resurrect his career in Test cricket and use that as a launch pad for returning to the white-ball teams.
If the selectors have wisely decided to consider Rahul and Pant as cricketers worthy of investment, they have been silent about the mystery concerning Rohit Sharma who does not find a place in any of the teams. The terse communication that his fitness levels, along with that of Ishant Sharma’s, would be monitored closely is the only indication that these two players were not considered on grounds of fitness. But the fact that Rohit is staying back in the UAE and practicing with the Mumbai Indians side has set the rumour mills wagging and even Sunil Gavaskar found it appropriate to ask whether there is anything more to his exclusion than just injury. It would be preposterous to even suggest that a player of the calibre and seniority of Rohit would consider sitting out of a major tour due to any reasons other than injury or ill health and any suggestions to the contrary should, in normal course, be seen only as the working of a diseased mind. But so fascinated is the psyche of average Indian with the unwritten stories of intrigue and interpersonal rivalry that they tend to read such factors as “feud with skipper Virat Kohli” as the cause for Rohit not being part of the side.
Sanju makes the cut
The good news for followers of the game from Kerala is the selection of Sanju Samson in the T20 squad. Sanju had started the IPL 2020 in grand style with two big knocks but went through a lean patch thereafter. Fortunately, he was able to recover his form just in time to get the nod from the selectors. The tour offers Sanju his big chance to come good at the top level and win entry to the national team for red-ball cricket as well.
The series starts with the first ODI to be held at the Sydney Cricket Ground on November 27. It will be a long and arduous tour which is slated to end only on January 19, 2020, when the fourth and final Test concludes at the Gabba in Brisbane.
Let us wish Kohli and his boys good luck as they embark on the tour to conquer the mighty Australians on their own turf.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)