Nagpur: At a boutique Melbourne hotel in May 2018, about six weeks after the tumultuous events at Cape Town, the then newly minted national men’s coach Justin Langer was asked what would be the greatest challenge for the team.
“The Indian Test tour in about three of four years’ time, to me that’s the ultimate because we will judge ourselves on whether or not we’re a great cricket team if we beat India in India,” Langer said. “I look back on my career and the Mt Everest moment was 2004 when we finally beat India in India.”
Langer would not see it through, but the Australian side he left behind is now on the quest for greatness.
Skipper Pat Cummins and the Australian team have a tough task ahead of them.Credit:Getty Images
The feud between Pat Cummins’ team and the golden generation dominated the start of Australia’s Test summer, but of more historical significance is the prospect of the current team joining, possibly even surpassing, the side of the early 2000s as one of the country’s greatest ever.
This is a defining year for a team that had as recently as 15 months ago not been the sum of its parts. In Steve Smith, David Warner, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon, Australia have world-class players with records to match the best of any era, but not the silverware to show for it.
They have not beaten India in India, or won the Ashes in England. The 50-over World Cup in 2015 was lifted by a team that straddled two eras. Arguably, Australia’s shock Twenty20 world title in 2021 is their only major achievement.
Australia celebrate their World Cup win in 2021.Credit:Getty Images
This can all change in 2023. If Cummins’ men can end a 19-year drought in India, secure an Ashes victory on foreign soil for the first time in 22 years and become only the second Australian team to lift the World Cup on the subcontinent, then their claims to greatness are indisputable.
“It is a great opportunity for this side to make a unique stamp,” former captain Mark Taylor, who led the side from 1994-99, said.
It all starts Thursday at Nagpur’s VCA Stadium – about a half-hour drive down the dusty National Highway 44 from the city’s old venue where Australia sealed a historic triumph in 2004. And the first hurdle to clear is perhaps the most difficult.
India have lost only one series since at home – to England in 2012. In fact, they have dropped only eight of their past 84 Tests on these shores.
One of those was to Australia in the underrated series six years ago when the unfancied visitors came closer than many think to pulling off a stunning upset. Their failure to bury India in Bangalore after bundling the hosts out for 189 on the first day proved costly.
“In a way it’s become the biggest mountain for Australian sides, certainly the biggest challenge,” Taylor said of winning in India.
“To be honest, it’s not always considered that way from a fans’ point of view. [Australian] fans would give up not winning in India to make sure we win in England, but from a player point of view I’m sure the Aussie boys would love to tick that box, being a side that can win on the subcontinent.”
Eight of the current squad – Smith, Warner, Cummins, Hazlewood, Lyon, Starc, Matthew Renshaw and Peter Handscomb – featured in 2017. Warner’s form has notably trended down since, but Marnus Labuschagne, Cameron Green and Alex Carey are upgrades, suggesting the Australian team of 2023 is the stronger version.
Conversely, this is not a bad time to strike India. Skipper Rohit Sharma played just two of his team’s seven Tests last year. Virat Kohli has not hit a century in this format in well over three years. Ironman Cheteshwar Pujara was dropped 12 months ago, though he fought back after being recalled late last year. Star paceman Jasprit Bumrah is injured, so too their hero from the 2020-21 series, dynamic wicketkeeper-batter Rishabh Pant, and the in-form Shreyas Iyer. Without key innings from Pant and Iyer, India would likely have lost a Test to Bangladesh in December.
India captain Rohit Sharma, left, will be without injured paceman Jasprit Bumrah.Credit:AP
“Australia should look at it like that,” former India opener and now respected commentator Aakash Chopra said.
Chopra, though, does not believe Australia have the spin power to beat India on their home tracks. After a shaky start, Lyon’s credentials in Asia are bona fide, but Ashton Agar and Mitchell Swepson are unproven at Test level, and Todd Murphy is untried. What Australia would give for a younger and sounder Steve O’Keefe.
“You need serious quality of spin to beat India in India,” Chopra said. “Similarly, when we went to Australia we knew our spin was great, but we needed a quartet of bowlers to take on Australia in Australia. We didn’t have that. We kept competing but couldn’t cross the final frontier.
“Swepson, Agar – they’re all right, but if it’s a good batting surface I don’t think they’re running through the Indian batting line-up, even though there’s no Rishabh Pant, no Shreyas Iyer. There is still enough quality to see through whatever challenges might come their way.
“The lack of quality spin is one thing that might actually play a pivotal role in Australia’s chances with regards to the series.
“On good pitches that can take the game into the fifth day, then I don’t see any possible vulnerability that will cost India the series. Maybe a Test, but not the series.”
Australia are well clear at the top of the Test rankings and World Test Championship table, but for Chopra if the Border-Gavaskar Trophy is not regained they cannot even lay claim to being the best team of today, let alone warrant comparison to previous eras.
“Potentially yes if you beat India in India, England in England, which is plausible, and the World Cup in India,” Chopra said.
“Wow, if they can do all three, yes, yes, it would be a momentous year in an already glorious Australian cricket history, but it will take a lot of doing for this Pat Cummins-led team to beat India and lift the World Cup.”
Winning in Pakistan last year was a step in the right direction, but the drawn series in Sri Lanka was another reminder of just how hard it is for Australian teams to win in this part of the world.
“They’ve ticked the Pakistan box last year, if they can win in India it’s a big feather in the cap and to Pat Cummins,” Taylor said. “If they can win in India that would certainly put them up there as one of the great Australian sides.”
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