Team India start favourites vs Australia… for the first time!

We are just six days away from the resumption of arguably the greatest cricket rivalry in the modern day. You have India vs Pakistan, India vs England, England vs Australia (The Ashes), and Australia vs South Africa, which provide exciting contests between bat and ball and involve a level of interest from the fans and world audience. A certain degree of bragging rights is also at stake normally, for reasons such as tradition and the bitterness players and the viewing public can have for each other. But none of those four cricketing rivalries matches up to the intensity, the skill normally on show, competitiveness, and viewership received by the India-Australia rivalry whether in Test or limited-overs cricket (ODIs and T20Is).

The heightened level of interest in today’s contests between these two teams is a result of India’s stunning 2-1 Test series victory in March 2001, with a landmark win at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata changing the face of Indian cricket. However, even after that home Test series win back in 2001, Team India were the underdogs whenever they went up against Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting’s teams, who were world beaters and head and shoulders above the rest. But the gulf, from an Indian perspective, has been bridged considerably over the last seven years, even though the Men in Blue have beaten the Aussies just twice in bilateral ODI series (2010 and 2013) since the start of this century. The Steve Waugh-led Australian side won a five-ODI series 3-2 in 2001, six years later a Ponting-led team won a seven-match ODI series 4-2 and in between these two bilateral series triumphs, Australia also won a tri-nation tournament which featured New Zealand as the third team.

Australia, who landed in Chennai on September 9 after levelling the two-Test series in and against Bangladesh 1-1, are basically here to resume their unfinished tour of India. Steve Smith and co. had made themselves and their countrymen proud by competing hard and running India close in a four-Test series back in February-March this year. Having begun that series as overwhelming underdogs, who were given no chance whatsoever of beating Virat Kohli’s India, Smith’s men played exceptional cricket for a touring team in each of the four Tests, even though their efforts went in vain and ended in a 2-1 series defeat. Inspired captaincy from Ajinkya Rahane and a complete performance in the absence of Kohli in Dharamsala gave India a 2-1 series victory.

To give you an idea of what separates this rivalry from the rest, the February-March Test series generated a mind-boggling 1.1 billion gross impressions on TV and the average for each Test match was 282 million! I wonder how many impressions will the upcoming five-ODI and three-T20I series between teams ranked 2nd and 3rd in the ICC ODI team rankings receive.

Coming to the upcoming limited-overs series which gets underway next Sunday (September 17) in Chennai, India, for the first time ever, should be considered favourites for a bilateral ODI series against the five-time world champions Australia. This Kohli-led Indian team are the most resourceful in world cricket today, while they are no doubt an in-form outfit too. India’s results across all three formats in 2017—in Tests, played 8, won 6, lost 1 and drawn 1; in ODIs, played 18, won 13, lost four and 1 no-result; and in T20Is, played 5, won three and lost two—back up the previous sentence.

You can argue that the third-ranked India will enter this limited-overs series on the back of routine series victories over Sri Lanka and West Indies, where they didn’t gain much and went untested too. But India are in their own backyard for this series, their experiments in Sri Lanka did bear some fruits and man-to-man and on the bowling front, India surely have the better personnel. Let us also not forget that this Indian side are flexible and as a result dynamic in their selection of players for a match and the roles each one of them plays in a match, meaning the opposition cannot always anticipate what’s going to be thrown at them.

The MSK Prasad-led selection committee have named a 16-man Indian ODI squad for the first three One-Day Internationals and it has a couple of inclusions (Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami) and one exclusion (Shardul Thakur) from the team which had been named for the Sri Lanka series. Axar Patel, who suffered an ankle injury while playing football during a training sessions, has been replaced by Ravindra Jadeja on the eve of the first ODI.

India ODI squad vs Australia in full:

Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Lokesh Rahul, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, and Kuldeep Yadav

The Australian ODI and T20I squads for the upcoming eight limited-overs matches have a blend of new faces and experienced players too. Of the 16 players in the current one-day squad, only four (Aaron Finch, Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner, and Nathan Coulter-Nile) featured in the ODI series back in 2013, when India won a seven-match series 4-2, and altogether, only six players (David Warner and Steve Smith in addition to the quartet aforementioned) in this Australian touring party have played an ODI series in India before. Though a lot of these Australian players have vast experience of playing white ball cricket in India, thanks to the IPL, Steve Smith and the team management might struggle to pick balanced playing XIs for the prevalent conditions and are probably going to be too heavy in the fast bowling department, while not having a lethal spinner like Nathan Lyon at their disposal.

On the batting front, India and Australia are well-matched and the visitors are likely to be far greater challengers than Sri Lanka and West Indies simply because of their destructive batting line-up featuring Warner, Smith, Finch, Maxwell, and Travis Head. Virat Kohli’s India are a highly motivated bunch who will want to continue the good work they have been doing throughout this year. And the spectators at the venues and the TV audience are in for a treat!

A three-T20I series follows this five-ODI series, but with the next World Twenty20 taking place only in 2020, the year after the 2019 World Cup in England, the focus is likely to be minimal. That said, these two sets of players should set the pulses racing and provide ample excitement in what is currently the in-vogue version of cricket.

If you’re a cricket fan, you cannot be more excited for a series and that is not even an exaggeration!

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