RAJKOT: As an appetizer to the main course, a solitary Twenty20 precedes India’s seven-ODI series against Australia, with both teams looking to taste early success in the month-long bilateral engagement. But the game appears to be under threat from the elements, what with rain forecast for the next 48 hours. The organisers, however, are optimistic of a full match, considering the drainage facilities at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium, and almost 80 per cent of the 28,000 seats have been sold.
What purpose the single T20 game will serve is questionable, except helping the teams get a feel of what to expect later in the series – one that will decide India’s fate as the reigning No.1 ODI team in the world.
The focus is likely to be on the dashing Yuvraj Singh, who has forced his way back into the Indian set-up after staging a miraculous recovery from a rare cancer last year. The southpaw was in blistering form in the recent series against West Indies ‘A’ and in the NKP Salve Challenger that helped him return to international reckoning.
India’s team for the T20 and the first three ODIs did not throw up too many surprises. Yuvraj was expectedly included, and Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, on account of not having done much in the recent past, were expectedly omitted. The core of the hosts remains intact: MS Dhoni in-charge, the amazingly in-form Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma at the top, a strong middle-order revolving around Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina, followed by the all-round expertise of Ravindra Jadeja.
Having led Mumbai Indians to their second Champions Trophy T20 trophy, Rohit, however, was not likely to take the Aussies lightly.
"They are a very competitive side with most of their players having featured in the IPL and the Champions League. They know the Indian conditions well. We can't get complacent against them. Australia on a given day are a very dangerous side," he told PTI.
India's pace bowling department doesn't look all that bad either. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is a genuine match-winner, Ishant Sharma is hopefully getting back to his best, and R Vinay Kumar (although perpetually expensive) has a peculiar knack of picking up wickets.
Australia were dealt a blow even before the tour when captain Michael Clarke was ruled out due to his chronic back problem. But under the tough George Bailey, and coach Steve Rixon, the visitors would know that the series holds more import for them than for their strong opponents.
The limited-overs contest has been sandwiched between two tough Ashes assignment for the Aussies – one of which they lost badly last month. With less than a month to go for the next Ashes, which Australia will host, a loss to India in ODIs would be devastating for team morale.
Which is why Ian Chappell had recently blasted the timing of the seven-ODI series. Skipper Bailey, however, was quick to defend the scheduling and has been saying that the extensive exposure to sub-continental conditions that the IPL and CLT20 have provided has all but neutralized India’s home advantage.
No home advantage
"One of the great things about IPL over the years is we have played in a lot of grounds against the best players. All of us have played with and against a lot of the Indian players and vice-versa. We know a lot of strengths and weaknesses, a lot about personalities…some areas to try and exploit," said Bailey.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. To restrain a rampaging India on tailored pitches and before huge, doting crowds will take more than lip service. Australia’s batting will rely heavily on Shane Watson and Glenn Maxwell, both of whom featured in the recently concluded CLT20, as also on the experience of veteran wicket-keeper Brad Haddin.
But on pitches expected to favour spin, a key role may have to be played by left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty, especially when India’s own spin duties will be manned by the wily R. Ashwin and Amit Mishra. All the matches, including the lone T20 have been advanced by an hour to counter the dew factor. And come 7 p.m. on Thursday, we will have a first inkling of the shape of things to come.