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Fresh tour, old challenges

India, for the better part of the last decade and a half, have carried the reputation of being a batting-heavy unit. However, there have been occasions where even the best of Indian batsmen have found it difficult to cope with the opposition bowling attack, especially overseas.

Their forgettable summer of 2011, which started with a humiliating 0-4 defeat in England, was followed by an equally disastrous tour of Australia. A major chunk of that embarrassing series was due to their abysmal batting. They managed to cross the 300-run mark just once and despite encouraging signs displayed by a few, the overall performance was a letdown. Almost three years after being humbled 0-4 in Australia, a young Indian side will be eyeing a turnaround, but much of which will depend on the way they bat.

A flurry of fifties against a young and inexperienced Cricket Australia XI might have had its share of benefit, but scoring runs on pitches that have tormented the best in the game will be tougher after the pounding India took at the hands of England’s bowlers. Shikhar Dhawan,Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara each succumbed to the conditions there but the good thing from India’s perspective is that unlike those cold English conditions, Australia doesn’t possess much swing; though pace and bounce will make India sweat for runs. As evident on tours of South Africa and New Zealand, the batsmen fared decently if not dominantly on tracks that had less movement in the air and off the pitch.

Of the current 19-member squad, which includes 11 batsmen, only Kohli, MS Dhoni andWriddhiman Saha have experience of playing in Australia. India’s problems begin right at the top. The opening pair of Dhawan and Murali Vijay has averaged a passable 19.1 in 14 innings this year but can be expected to link up at the top of the order in at least the first two Tests, which to some extent exposes India’s lack of options at the top. Vijay used the two practice matches well to his advantage, scoring fifties in both, contrary to his opening partner who managed 10 and a golden duck.

India might be willing to shake their batting order given the opening combo fails – possibly promoting Ajinkya Rahane or Rohit Sharma to open the innings – but such a move seems highly unlikely going by Dhoni’s track record. Despite scoring 101 runs in three innings against Australia A (including a half-century), the team management might not want to expose KL Rahul to chin music in the first half of the series.

India’s No. 3, Pujara, will be another pivotal factor to their outcome in the series. After enduring the toughest series of his young career in England, where he had problems with the incoming delivery, Pujara’s county stint with Derbyshire, along with a fifty against the CA XI, should be encouraging. Pujara’s overseas form has been a bit of a concern and during the England tour, there emerged a few cracks in his rock-solid defense. In each of the 21 innings played and overseas, Pujara’s away record reads 593 runs at 28.3 in comparison to 1279 at 75.3 in India, with his only touring century coming against South Africa in Johannesburg late last year. Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris will make the ball talk and how Pujara handles the movement off the pitch will make for an interesting viewing.

Like Pujara, Kohli too was a setback for India in England. In fact, he was statistically their worst batsman – (134 runs in 10 innings). His vulnerability outside the off stump was well highlighted and the pitches in all four venues will test his patience. That being said, Kohli has the knowledge of playing a Test in Australia; he was the lone batsmen to score a century – 116 at Adelaide – and getting among the runs is crucial to India’s chances. Kohli enjoyed a fruitful outing in the two bilateral series at home, to go with a couple of 60s in the tour matches. Playing outside off stump and driving eagerly are his weak zones.

While a crucial portion of India’s batting will depend on Pujara and Kohli, the rest of the middle order also needs to chip in. Rahane (299 runs at 33.22) and Dhoni (249 at 34.90) had encouraging numbers against England but Australia will test them in different ways. Consistency has been a rare feature in India’s previous away tours and this is where the middle order needs to step up and deliver. In 2014, there have been just three century and eight fifty-run partnerships between India’s No. 3, 4, 5 and 6.

The battle for India’s No.6 spot is between Rohit and Suresh Raina. Rohit followed his record-breaking 264 against Sri Lanka with 23 and 48 in the two games against the CA XI but his knack of being unable to capitalise on starts is something India would want him to curb. Raina, whose last Test appearance was more than three years ago, has revived his career after his arrival in England during the ODI series which India won in September, an sign that he can be a success in overseas conditions.

Dhoni will not be playing the series opener at Adelaide Oval, meaning that Saha gets to keep wicket in at least one Test. Saha picked up fifties in both warm-ups and owns a sound technique, and must really make this opportunity count. He may have not got many opportunities in the Sri Lanka ODIs but his composure may well be the need of the hour in Australian conditions.

The three Tests against West Indies could have accounted for some much-needed preparation after the England debacle, but their untimely pull-out dashed those plans. India’s batsmen enjoyed a satisfactory couple of two-day warm-ups against a very inexperienced team with as many as five batsmen scoring half-centuries, but it’s a far cry from what awaits them in the form of a fiery Johnson and Co. Logically, Australia should favour the Indian batsmen, with the ball coming nicely on to the bat. But to what extent that notion holds true, remains to be seen.

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