After winning the second Test in the ongoing Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, Virat Kohli and his men have brought normalcy back to the proceedings, while Australia is left with several troubles looming large. In the recent past, Kohli’s men have shown that once they start winning, they become unstoppable, and hence for Smith and Co. coming back in this Test series is going to be an uphill task.
Nevertheless, Australia has a strong side and as they proved in the first Test, they have the capacity to outplay India.
Here are five key issues which the Australian management must resolve before taking the field in Ranchi for the third Test.
#1 Runs from David Warner
Matt Renshaw’s brilliance at the top overshadowed David Warner’s failure to some extent. However, Australia’s dependence on Warner was clearly seen when he departed early in the second innings in Bangalore.
Prior to this series, in the last six Tests, Warner has scored 17.43% of Australia’s total runs. Hence, for Australia to score big totals, the left-hander must fire at the top. Warner’s job, of course, is not that easy as he has traditionally struggled in Asian conditions.
With the pitches offering uneven bounce and conditions favouring bowlers, the New South Wales batsman must bat with grit and improve his game against spinners, especially against Ravichandran Ashwin.
Such is Warner’s prowess that he can turn the fate of the match within one session and hence Australia will be hoping that he finds some form in the remaining two Tests.
#2 The all-rounder conundrum
In the first two Tests, Australia went with an all-rounder who offered very little in the bowling as well as batting department. Now, injury has ruled Mitchell Marsh out of the side and Marcus Stonis has been named as his replacement. However, Australia must ask themselves if they actually need an all-rounder.
Instead of opting for a player who is neither a top order batsman nor an opening or first-change bowler, they could go in with a specialist batsman to strengthen the side.
Usman Khawaja is too good a batsman to warm the benches and Australian management can seriously think of including him in the playing 11 to boost their batting strength.
#3 Negate the threat of Ravichandran Ashwin
When Australia arrived in India, all the talk was about the threat of Ashwin, but, in the first Test, Australia showed that they had done their homework as they got the better of the off-spinner. Although Ashwin picked up seven wickets in that Test, he averaged 26 runs per wicket which was way more than his average of 20.09 during this grand home Test season.
However, in the second Test, the off-spinner struck back by getting six wickets in the second innings.
Ashwin himself has spoken many times about how his performance is dependent on his rhythm. In the second innings in Bangalore, he had certainly found his rhythm back, and now with two Tests remaining, he is the most difficult threat for Australia.
Australia’s top order batsmen have to again toil hard in the nets to devise a strategy against Ashwin, who will be eager to tangle Australian batsmen in his web of spin.
#4 The fifth bowler and replacement for Starc
Although Australia’s four main bowlers got 20 wickets in both the Tests, the performance in the Bengaluru Test wasn’t as impressive as the one in the first Test in Pune. Steve O'Keefe, who had demolished the Indian batting line up in the first Test, was neutralised efficiently by the Indian batsmen.
Nathan Lyon was in clear trouble during the latter half of the Bangalore Test and his fingers were severely damaged due to bowling long spells. Mitchell Starc’s injury is a huge blow for the visitors and this will only add to the pressure on Josh Hazlewood. Although there are plenty of options for replacing Starc, no current pace bowler from Australia looks as threatening as him in Asian conditions.
Thus, it may not be a bad idea to bring an extra bowler in the side. Having a third spinner will reduce the burden on Lyon and O'Keefe and would also allow Smith more options. However, bringing the third spinner would mean sacrificing batting strength which Australia cannot afford at this time.
It will be a brave call to include an extra bowler in the side, but if it pays off, it will surely seal the deal for Australia.
#5 Captaincy of Smith
The job of visiting captains has never been easy in India. Firstly they have to deal with the difficult sub-continent conditions and often have limited resources to challenge the strong Indian sides. Steve Smith started unbelievably well in this series but at the end of the second Test, there are several questions that need to be answered regarding his captaincy.
One of the vital elements of winning Tests in India is to know when to attack and when to sit back and wait for the opposition to make a mistake. Smith, during India’s second innings, went over attacking in the beginning and allowed Mukund and Rahul to get vital runs. And when the pair of Rahane and Pujara got set, Smith stopped looking for wickets and instead opted for preventing runs.
Once that plan failed, he was waiting for the new ball to get a breakthrough, but even that strategy to attack with the new ball had an element of risk as Pujara and Rahane were set and looking to further consolidate the lead.
In the third Test, Smith will be dealing with an Indian team which is full of confidence and hence has to be spot on with his captaincy. Another issue that will come back to bite him in the series is the ‘brain fade’ moment which got him in plenty of trouble.
Luckily for Australia, there is some gap before the next Test and hence they have time to introspect and work out their game plan. Their chances of putting up a strong performance depend on how well they handle these five issues.