The last time Australia played at the JSCA Stadium in Ranchi was nearly seven months ago, the third match of a hotly-contested four-Test series against India.
The pitch doctors were out in full force then; the press predicted a low and slow turner, Steven Smith himself expected it to crumble like shortbread, and rumours were doing the rounds that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was going to instruct how it would behave. Bada bing, bada boom, 2-1 to India, surely.
Instead, four batsmen hit centuries — two of them Australians Smith and Glenn Maxwell — Pat Cummins took four wickets in his comeback game, and Australia held on for a draw.
It’s an entirely different format, of course, but Smith will fervently hope Australia can come good again in Ranchi, when they take on India in the first Twenty20 International on Saturday (October 7).
On the eve of the match this time around, the pitch was safely tucked underneath the covers, as was almost the entire outfield due to the heavens opening up in the afternoon. There was rain around the same time the previous day and it’s expected on match day as well, but it’s also expected to clear up by the evening in time for the match.
After a 4-1 series defeat to India in the One-Day Internationals, the onus is on Australia to not let the hosts get on a roll again. India have played only one other T20I in Ranchi, which resulted in a 69-run win against Sri Lanka in February last year, and it was an excellent batting track though there was help for the spinners too. That means Australia’s batsmen, who have been largely MIA this tour, will have to find a way to combat India’s spinners.
Jason Behrendorff, set to make his debut on Saturday, suggested there were no concerns about the batting, but the management doesn’t seem to be thinking along the same lines.
Glenn Maxwell was dropped for the last two games, and David Saker, the stand-in-coach said their patience has worn thin. A match-winner on his day, he’s been less hit and more miss these days. The rub is that Australia can’t afford to leave him out in a format that’s just as unpredictable as him, especially with the side light on batting.
Meanwhile, India have the luxury of quite a few options in the middle order. Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav haven’t done too much wrong in the ODIs and so it is likely that KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik will miss out.
The bowling is also pretty settled. Ashish Nehra is expected to return to the XI, which will mean one of the spinners will be sitting out. The inclusion of the 38-year-old seamer in the squad raised some eyebrows, but he enjoys the confidence of the team.
Jasprit Bumrah on his bowling evolution alongside Bhuvneshwar Kumar: “We just want to improve all the time, we keep asking questions to each other and we keep learning from the senior players — what else we can do, how to improve ourselves, how to adapt to different conditions and different wickets. So our main focus is that. We don’t focus on the results. We just want to focus on the training and we want to get better and better after each and every game.”
“He is a very experienced player and I have played some cricket with him during the World T20. It’s always great fun playing alongside him. He has got plenty of experience to share and is very helpful,” offered Jasprit Bumrah on Friday. “As a youngster, I keep asking him questions and seek his advice. The team atmosphere also becomes very good with his presence, so it’s very nice to see him back.”
Australia have insisted the morale in their dressing room is also high, with five players — Behrendorff, Dan Christian, Moises Henriques, Tim Paine, Andrew Tye — tasked with keeping it that way. But they will have their work cut out for them in a format that isn’t their strongest suit and where India lord over them with a 9-4 head-to-head record.
That said, the odds seemed to be stacked against Australia once before in Ranchi, and they surprised a few people, including themselves, then. What better time for an encore?
India: Virat Kohli (capt), Rohit Sharma (vice-capt), Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ashish Nehra, Axar Patel.
Australia: Steven Smith (capt), David Warner, Jason Behrendorff, Dan Christian, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Aaron Finch, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Glenn Maxwell, Tim Paine (wk), Kane Richardson, Adam Zampa, Andrew Tye.