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Tour Of India: Australia's Hellish Journey Through Test Cricket's Graveyard Begins

After one of the most turbulent summers in recent history, Steve Smith's rebuilding Aussie side is now faced with one of the biggest challenges in world sport - a tour of India.

by James Pavey
24 February 2017, 12:20am

Virat Kohli flips the bird to SCG hecklers back in 2012. (Image: Youtube)

Steve Smith's young Australian test team have reached the foot of cricket's Mount Everest, or the banks of its river styx, or its graveyard, or whatever suitably dire metaphor you wanna run with. A four-Test series in the smoggy, hellish sub-continental cricketing abyss that is India remains the toughest place to play win a Test match in world cricket, let alone a series, let alone escape with your reputation and cricketing self-confidence in tact.

To make matters worse, the Australians are being circled by a school of bloodthirsty sharks - a No.1-ranked Indian Test cricket team that haven't been beaten since August 2015.

Everyone has written off the Aussies - former players, commentators, journalists and the stark-raving mad cricket fan. Everyone expects India to go straight through the Australian batting order like the proverbial 'Indian Curry.' Long-time antagonist and former Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh went a step further, labelling Smith's side as the worst Australian team to ever set foot on Indian soil. "If Australia play well, India will win 3-0. That is if Australia play well," Harbhajan said last week. "Otherwise, 4-0."

Australia head into the series as obvious outsiders. The Australians have not won a match on the subcontinent since 2011, with their most recent Test victory on Indian soil coming in 2004, a series which the Aussies memorably won 2-1. Meanwhile, India are undefeated in their previous 20 home Tests. Most recently, they flogged Bangladesh in a one-off match, and swept aside an English team that managed to put 400 on the board on three occasions, only for the Indians to win the five-match series 4-0.

Standing in Australia's way is Indian skipper and batting maestro Virat Kohli. Of course, say what you want about Kohli, but the man can swing a willow. In India, he is a demigod that has nearly reached the lofty heights of messrs Tendulkar, Dhoni, Gavaskar and Kumble. Kohli is seen by many as the best batsman on the planet at the moment, and the stats don't lie. The Indian skipper's Test average of 51.75 skyrockets to 60.76 against Australia, and it is 61.21 against all opponents on home soil. Just how good is he? Well, since the start of 2016, he has scored 1457 Test runs at 80.94, nailing four double-centuries in the last seven months alone.

Not afraid to dish out some cringeworthy-yet-aggravating lip, Kohli is the obvious target for the Aussie bowlers, and former Aussie captain Steve Waugh said it best: "Virat Kohli is pretty much the way we play cricket - he's very aggressive, he's in your face, positive, backs himself. Every ball he plays as a priority, like it's the most important ball of his life. He's a tough adversary because you know you're not going to get anything from him."

Aussie skipper Steve Smith rallies the troops in India. (Image: YouTube)

Kohli's big-game presence hides the punishing workmanship of spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. Ashwin recently broke legendary Aussie Dennis Lillee's record as being the fastest bowler to take 250 Test wickets. Ashwin has been so prolific of late, that since his debut in 2011, no other Indian bowler has managed even half as many wickets. With his cunning variations, Ashwin takes to a dusty spinning pitch like a pig to mud.

For the Aussies to beat India, they must nullify Kohli and Ashwin. With regards to their prowess, a certain Blackadder quote comes to mind; facing a rampant India team would be like "getting an arrow through the neck and discovering there's a gas bill tied to it." Copping a Kohli batting masterclass would be the arrow, and the gas bill would be Ashwin. It just gets worse and worse. Well, it couldn't be worse than the 2013 series in India. Think happy thoughts? Go no further than 2004.

The first Test match began yesterday in Pune, and if the pitch is anything to go by, it will be a spinner's paradise. The groundskeeper, a former Indian fast bowler, said the pitch would favour fast bowlers, but on closer inspection, the Pune deck is covered with cracks that will open as the Test wears on, with low-pitching spin a given.

Although Nathan Lyon's spinning duties will come under some scrutiny, the key to taking 20 Indian wickets is to maximise the Aussie pace attack. If the ball is reverse-swinging for speedsters Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, the Aussie captain will be licking his lips and will want them to tie up both ends. You could imagine that Hazlewood and Starc would be busier than a one-armed taxi driver with crabs.

More importantly, the Australian order needs to bat deep into the XI, and in doing so, it must banish its demons against quality spin. When Australia collapsed against Sri Lanka's spin last year, many of the dismissals came from a mixture of over-aggression, tentativeness and downright confusion. They can't let that happen in India. A happy medium must be found, and fast. Confidence is crucial with the willow, be it a forward defence, a striding lofted stroke or a hell-for-leather sweep shot.

After all, this is sport, so anything can happen. One thing is certain, though - this is Australian cricket's final frontier.

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