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Australia’s strong middle order & pacers present big challenge for India in Border-Gavaskar Trophy

Border Gavaskar Trophy 2022-23: Australia’s strong middle order & pacers present big challenge for India in BGT'23. Complete Australia squad analysis.

Border Gavaskar Trophy 2022-23_ Steven Smith can present a great challenge for India bowlers in BGT 2022-23 _ Walking Wicket (Images_ ©stevesmith49_Twitter)
Smith can present a great challenge for India bowlers in BGT (Images: ©stevesmith49/Twitter)

India and Australia will go head-to-head yet again in the Border Gavaskar Trophy, which is currently under India’s possession after three consecutive Test series wins, including two title wins down under. This time around, Australia will be touring India in February-March 2023 for a four-match Test series, which would also be the last of its kind between the two sides.

Both boards – the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and Cricket Australia (CA) - have decided to switch to a full-fledged five-match Test series from now on.

“This will also be the last edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy which will be a 4-match Test series,” said a BCCI statement issued recently.

As per the current International Cricket Council (ICC) Future Tours Programme (FTP) released for the 2023-27 cycle, Australia will host India in the World Test Championship (WTC) 2023-25 cycle followed by a series between the national squads of both teams in India in the subsequent WTC cycle.

Australia will aim to turn the tide like they did on their 2004-05 tour of India

Australia will be touring India for a Test series for the first time after the 1-2 series loss in 2016-17; almost after a gap of five years, the Aussies will be donning the whites in India. In these five years, many things have changed in the Indian and Australian dressing rooms, from captains to players to coaches to management. Almost everything in and around the team has changed for both sides. But this time, both teams will be competing not only for the Border Gavaskar Trophy, but also for a spot in the World Test Championship (WTC) 2021-23 Final.

This time the Australian management has picked a power-packed squad to leave no stone unturned on the tour of India to try and emulate the dominance exhibited by Australia’s squad on the 2004-05 tour, the last time the kangaroos won in India in the longest format.

Australia’s 18-member squad for Border Gavaskar Trophy 2022-23

Pat Cummins (captain), Steven Smith (vc), Alex Carey (wk), Peter Handscomb, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Lance Morris, Todd Murphy, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner

Drawing the Numbers - Analysing Australia’s Squad

Upper order (1-3): Warner's returns in last few years big worry for Australia?

An all-left-handed opening combination of David Warner and Usman Khawaja pack their punch above the reserve opener, Matt Renshaw, who is also a left-hander. So, there would be no variety for Australia with respect to the opening combination if things go haywire against Ravichandran Ashwin, who has taken 225 out of his 449 wickets against left-handers (50.11 per cent).

While Warner has a career average of 46.20, his form has been a question mark, with a year-on-year declining average of 38.37 in 2021 and 30.05 in 2022. The question mark becomes even bigger when we compare Warner’s overall numbers with respect to Tests played in India, as his average drops to just 24.25 with no centuries in the 16 innings he has played in India.

Warner’s current opening partner, Usman Khawaja, who averages 47.83 across the globe in Tests, has yet to play a single Test in India. He has a poor average of 28.28 in the four Tests he has played against India, where he has made 198 runs with a solitary fifty in the 8 innings against the particular opponents. However, unlike Warner, Usman has been in terrific form in the recent past, as he has scored 1080 runs in 20 innings in 2022 at a stellar average of 67.50. In the one innings Khawaja has played in 2023 as well, he bagged a 195* against South Africa in Sydney.

Australia’s backup opener, Matthew Renshaw, doesn’t have great numbers overall as he averages just 33.73 in his career. In India either, as he averages 29 in eight innings played there. He featured in the 2016-17 series and did start well with a 68 in the first Test at Pune, followed by a 68 in the second Test at Bengaluru, but failed to deliver at other crunch moments in that series.

Marnus Labuschagne, Australia's emerging sensation who has taken the world by storm, would definitely be the batter to watch out for in the Australian setup. Having scored 3150 runs in 56 innings at a brilliant average of 59.43. Well, planting his foot and carving his name on the Indian soil in Test matches is something Labuschagne would love to do as a batter.

Labuschagne has only played on one surface that is remotely similar to that of India, and that was in Pakistan, where he made 170 runs in 5 innings averaging 34 - not bad for someone touring the sub-continent for the first time. Labuschagne is having an absolute dream run in Tests between 2021 and 2022; he has accumulated 1562 runs in 29 innings at an average of 60.07 in the said timeframe.

So, to cut a long story short, unless Khawaja uses his purple patch and stands tall from one end, the story might be similar for Australia’s openers in India this time too. Labuschagne is certainly a formidable number three batter but he has still got to prove himself in Indian conditions.

Middle Order (4-7): Formidable combination

Steven Smith, the backbone of Australia's batting order, is the only player to have dominated India, even in India. A player with a career average of 60.89 and 8647 runs scored in only 162 innings is a force to reckon with on any playing surface. Having the experience of playing in India twice, once as a leg spinner and once as one of the all-time Australian batting legends, Smith’s career escalated quite quickly. In 2016-17, Smith made 499 runs in 4 Tests at an average of 71.28 with three hundreds in eight innings.

Smith scored a match-defining 109 in the first Test at Pune, and was a pioneer in Australia winning the Test played there. He followed it up with centuries in Ranchi and Dharamsala and although Australia lost the series, Smith had proven his credentials on Indian soil.

Though things and technique have changed for Smith in the last five years, the mental model and experience he would bring to the table would be unmatched. Smith is expected to play at number four or even in the upper order at three, with Labuschagne at number four in that case.

Number five might be filled by either Travis Head or Peter Handscomb, who is making a comeback for Australia. Head, who has been in a tremendous run of form between 2021 and 2023 with 973 runs in 20 innings at an average of 54.05, has yet to play a single Test in India. On the other hand, Handscomb, who last played a Test for Australia in 2019, has the experience of playing on the spinning tracks of India. Handscomb scored 198 runs at an average of 28.28 on the 2016-17 tour, providing invaluable support to then-captain Smith in the middle order.

In a battle between Handscomb and Travis, Australia might just go with the former at number 5 if they take his prior experience of playing in India. But Travis Head holds a slight advantage as he has the ability to bowl decent right arm offbreaks; he did not pick up a single wicket until 2021 end, but in 2022 alone, Head picked six wickets in 35.5 overs at an average of 19, which might lead to Handscomb just warming the bench. So, it’s a puzzle that Australia’s team management has to solve.

Cameron Green, who is currently going through rehabilitation for a fractured thumb and is touch and go to be match fit before the first Test in Nagpur, will be the fast-bowling all-rounder for Australia based on availability. In 2022, Green has been adding balance for Australia both with the bat and the ball, as he has made 518 runs at an average of 39.84 and has picked up 16 wickets in 16 innings at an average of 30.62. Moreover, his heroics the last time he toured India for the T20I series might very well be repeated even in the Test domain.

It looks like Australia have pinned their hopes on Alex Carey as the wicketkeeper for at least the next two years, they have not opted for a backup keeper on a long Test tour. To do justice to the faith shown by the selectors, Carey has been absolutely terrific in 2022, scoring 536 runs in 14 Test innings with two fifties and one hundred at an average of 48.72. Hence, without a shadow of a doubt, Carey would be the number 7 player for Australia.

Spin Department – Nathan Lyon heads the attack

The Australian selectors have added four regular spinners this time around to their squad - Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Swepson, Ashton Agar and the young Sheffield Shield sensation Todd Murphy. While experienced campaigner Lyon is almost certain to play, it will be interesting to see whether Australia go with a combination of two spinners and two fast bowlers or three spinners and one fast bowler. The former seems practical though as the Aussies have Travis and Labuschagne to roll their arms over whenever Pat Cummins is looking to give his premier bowlers some rest.

Talking about numbers, veteran off-spinner Lyon has picked a mammoth 460 wickets at a strike rate of 64.7 (a wicket after every 10 overs) throughout his 12-year-long Test career; he has picked 34 wickets in 13 innings in India at an even better strike rate of 51.7 (a wicket after every 8 overs). Though Nathan Lyon has troubled India in the past decade, ever since Rishabh Pant’s rise in 2018, Australia’s premier off-spinner has been a different bowler against India as he has taken 30 wickets in 8 Tests against the particular opponents while averaging 37.83 with a strike rate of 85.8 (a wicket after every 14 overs). Thanks to Rishabh Pant, Nathan Lyon had a horrific 2020–21 series, where he was clobbered all over the park and could only manage nine wickets in the seven innings, bowling at a poor average of 55.11 (vs his career average of 31.65) and a deplorable strike rate of 124.6.

However, Australia’s spin bowling options still lack depth and experience, as Ashton Agar, Mitchell Swepson and Murphy have never rolled their arm over in India in Test matches. Agar is like a world cup; he only comes in every four years for Australia in Tests, as he last played a Test before the home series against South Africa way back in 2017. In the two innings he has bowled in 2023, Agar has been dry and thirsty, still wicketless.

The 22-year-old off-spinner Todd Murphy, who has played just seven first-class matches for Victoria, has already picked up 29 wickets at an average of 25.20. His performance in the Sheffield Shield matches not just earned him a call up to the national side but also to the KFC Big Bash League (BBL) 2022, where he has been a star for the Sydney Sixers, picking seven wickets in the last five games. Leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson, who debuted for Australia in 2022 with the red ball, has shown potential to win matches by picking 10 wickets in seven innings, but a leg spinner getting to play a game in India is not a usual sight. Since 2020, no notable right-arm leg-spinner has rolled his arm on an Indian pitch. Rashid Khan was the last notable leg-spinner to roll his wrist in 2018 on Indian pitches in Tests.

Fast Bowlers – Captain Cummins leads the way

The leader of the fast bowling pack will be Australia captain Pat Cummins, who has been sensational with the red ball in hand. Cummins has picked up 40 wickets since the beginning of 2022. The Australia skipper has been a rare diamond in world cricket who strikes at a rate of 46.9 throughout his career.

Cummins is also a handy batter lower down the order, with 143 runs in the 11 matches he has played since 2022. The good thing for Australia is that even though Pat Cummins doesn’t have much red-ball experience on Indian wickets, having bowled in just three innings there, picked up a crucial bag of 8 wickets in India on the 2016-17 tour at an average of 30.25 while striking at an impressive rate of 57.7.

Against India’s batters, Cummins has a strike rate of 53.6 compared to his career strike rate of 46.9. Australia may only use one more pacer in addition to Cummins as Green could fill in as the third seamer if he becomes match-fit in time. With Mitchell Starc ruled out of the first Test in Nagpur, the Aussies will rotate between Josh Hazelwood and Scott Boland. While Hazlewood has been struggling with injuries and has been out of rhythm, he has picked up just seven wickets in six innings since the start of 2022. Despite having seven innings of bowling experience in India, Hazelwood has only taken nine wickets in those games.

So, bringing in right-arm fast-medium bowler Scott Boland, whom India are yet to face, might just do the trick for the Aussies in terms of pace. Given that the regulars may start the anticipated series, the speed sensation Lance Morris, who is being hyped for possessing "express pace," may also get a game or two later in the series. Morris' ability to deliver 150+ kmph in March at a venue like Ahmedabad where it will be relatively more taxing than usual, will undoubtedly be called into question, as will his ability to simply warm the bench with his pace once the series begins.

The impact of the series will directly be felt as regards the WTC 2021-23 Finals, and neither of the teams would like to miss out on a slot there. India need to win by a margin of 3-1 or better to book their place in that all-important final with a percentage of points (PCT) of 58.93, while Australia would want to win or at best avoid a heavy defeat to let their current PCT of 75.56 not take a huge beating.

Both teams have been the best two Test teams across the WTC 2021–23 cycle. Whether Australia can make inroads into India's road ahead, or if it will be the same old story of a potential Australian side getting steamrolled in the web of spin, remains to be seen.

Australia's Strengths

Overall, the Australian lineup looks quite settled with a balanced mix of spinners, fast bowlers and a healthy mix of spin bowling all-rounders in the form of Labuschagne, Head and even Steve Smith, for that matter. Khawaja, Smith, Labuschagne and Travis Head have been in superb form of late. The batters have the mental game to bat long hours, which is required in India, but how they will fare in conditions alien to them will be a question that will need to be answered through the length of the series.

Australia's Weaknesses

While the Aussies have added a lot of spinners, apart from Nathan Lyon, no one has any real experience bowling in India: be it the spinners or the fast bowlers. Similar is the situation in the batting department, as apart from David Warner, Steven Smith, nobody in the top five from their last Test match against South Africa in Sydney, has ever played in India in Test matches before. So, the experience of tackling Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel or any Indian spinner on rank-turners would test the Australian batters in a big way.

The first Test of the Border Gavaskar Trophy 2022-23 between India and Australia will be played at the Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) Stadium in Nagpur from February 9-13. The second Test will be played in Delhi from February 17-21. In more than a week’s time, the third Test will be played in Dharamsala from March 1-5, followed by the fourth Test in Ahmedabad from March 9-13.


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