India v Australia: What the latest chapter holds

Depending on how you look at it, a little September white-ball slug fest in India can be thoroughly entertaining or completely pointless.

Six months is a long time on the modern cricket calendar. Much has changed since that show of bluster from Ajinkya Rahane in Dharamsala that rubber-stamped the result of a highly competitive, at times acrimonious, Test series. India have since, played the Indian Premier League, reached the Champions Trophy final while their captain and (then) coach feuded silently, brought back Ravi Shastri and impartially doled out punishments to Windies and Sri Lanka.

Now meet Australia. They also played the IPL before travelling to England for a taste of the summer showers. But nothing, not even their group-stage exit at an ICC event, took the sheen away from their favourite winter topic – contracts. The dust which eventually settled in in one of those board rooms in Melbourne, found its way to the Dhaka surface. Steve Smith has brought his side back to India to complete the tour with the mandatory ODI and T20I assignments, which have an air of something rather grudgingly taken, even as thoughts turn naturally towards the first Ashes Test.

Depending on how you look at it, a little September white-ball slug fest in India can be thoroughly entertaining or completely pointless. There is a tendency here to sway from one extreme to the other when it comes to our sport, with little room for the shades in between. But there is no question that the confidence engendered in one format can have an effect in another.

And Australia don’t mind limited-overs cricket in India. Reverses in the last two visits notwithstanding, their travels for white-ball cricket have been largely fruitful, including a World Cup and a Champions Trophy win. Incidentally, since 1998 – when a bilateral series between two sides became more periodic – Australia have emerged triumphant in five of the seven ODI series (including tri-nation tournaments in 1998 and 2003). The 2010 series, which saw two washouts and an India victory in Visakhapatnam, and the 2013 run-glut have only recently bucked the trend.

So what to expect from another India – Australia contest? There is a fear, maybe even a strange sense of excitement, that things will play out exactly like they have in the recent past with Smith and Virat Kohli scoring truckloads of runs and then taking turns to see how close they can push each other to the brink of spontaneous combustion. Given the spicy nature of press conferences during the Test series, it was mildly comforting to see Smith appear at ease upon arrival in Chennai. It was all civil until one ‘spirit of cricket’ delivery reared up with a puff of dust following it.

Smith metaphorically rocked backwards and turned it behind backward square leg, like he had done so often in Pune earlier this year. “I think it will be played in good spirit,” he said. “It’s always a hard fought contest playing against India, and we are excited by the challenge of playing over here.”

Shastri took a route less subtle: “If the Kangaroos speak loudly, they will get an effective response from us,” he said.

Whether Kohli will eventually make it to his Aussie counterpart’s Christmas card list is up for debate. But both men, fine leaders and even better batsmen, have a job to do in the series, which on the face of it may seem incongruous to their Test match challenges ahead. That task is to ensure the sustenance of the proverbial momentum.

India, ranked No. 3 in the ICC ODI Rankings, appear to have turned a little corner in their ODI game. While their blueprint for success still relies heavily on the top-order platform – Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have scored 9 of the 13 hundreds for India in 2017 – the rise of Hardik Pandya and the arrival of Kedar Jadhav in the lower-middle order positions may have added just the right mix of power and unorthodoxy needed to stay abreast in these routine 300-v-300 contests.

Lessons have been learnt with the ball too. There are hints to a permanent move towards playing wrist spinners, evidenced by the Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav inclusions. The ability to take wickets is deemed too critical because no matter how accurate a bowler is, he will be dinked around between overs 30-40, as R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja found out in the Champions Trophy final. Clearly the little tweaks have had some effect. India, who’d won just a solitary ODI series between the 2015 World Cup and the start of last home season (versus Zimbabwe), now have series wins over New Zealand, England, Windies and Sri Lanka and a final appearance at an ICC event. Australia will now provide the ultimate validation for India’s evolution, if any, and answer the question if they are better prepared to respond from a 100 for 4 situation again.

For Australia, it is a tour of timely distraction – one that may also serve to reignite their competitive spirit ahead of the home summer. They aren’t accustomed to prolonged periods of form slumps. In the last 12 months alone, they’ve lost a Chappell-Hadlee series, been whitewashed 5-0 by South Africa and put together an insipid Champions Trophy campaign. Expect a retaliation and a big dosage of the Aussie brand of cricket, with its talk of aggression, empowerment and self-expression. They may have decided to wrap two of their fast-bowling diamonds in wool for now, but rest assured Cummins and Co. will have their say, at least for a spell or two, even on the flat surfaces.

Four years ago, Australia had been blanked 0-4 in the Tests and had an Ashes defeat to avenge at home before they came over for the ODI series. India were enjoying a summer of success and had both the World Cup and World T20 belts on the mantelpiece. The two teams produced a series that saw a total of 3,274 runs, 107 sixes, 345 fours and two mock celebrations. Things aren’t very different now.