The images of the eyebrow-raising pitch prep for the series opener between India and Australia were probably enough to spook viewers.
In what might be termed gimmicks by the hosts, or ‘pitch doctoring’ by others, ground staff at Nagpur’s VCA Stadium adjusted the surface in an apparent attempt to help India gain an advantage ahead of the first Test to obtain, which begins on Thursday.
Australia are already facing the toughest challenge in cricket as India have not lost a home Test series in a decade and Australia’s surrender looks even more daunting on a surface that is expected to turn heavily.
But this Aussie team, increasingly shaped in the image of easygoing captain Pat Cummins, may not be as easily ruffled as previous excited sides.
“It can possibly be a bit rough out there. We just have to accept that,” Cummins told reporters on Wednesday. “It will be fun, it will be challenging at times. Our batters relish the chance to solve problems on the fly.”
Even if a veteran Australia have sought a quieter approach, as opposed to the macho image they seem to have enjoyed prior to the ball-tampering scandal, there’s a chance this series could unexpectedly find its way into the frenzied competition four years ago was almost in for viewers India won.
Australia will need to be remarkably resilient for the duration of the four-game streak if they are to secure what is arguably their greatest triumph in decades. It would be better than their drought-breaking victory in India in 2004, when Australia was in the midst of a golden generation, surpassing the waning power of the West Indies in 1995.
It’s the last chance for big hitters David Warner and Steve Smith, along with possibly several others, to win in India. Australia could not get a better opportunity with an in-form team that is arguably their best since the 2000s heyday.
However, injuries hit at the worst possible time for a team that has been remarkably stable. Quicks Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc will not play in Nagpur but the biggest blow is the loss of rising all-rounder Cameron Green, whose absence will rob them of their invaluable flexibility.
This likely spin-friendly surface in Nagpur will reveal Australia’s biggest lack of spin bowling depth behind frontliner Nathan Lyon.
Uncapped off-spinner Todd Murphy will make his debut in the toughest initiation, while spinning all-rounder Ashton Agar could be part of a rare three-pronged spin attack for Australia, despite boasting a mediocre red ball record.
“He bowled beautifully in the nets over here. He’s started really well for Victoria in first-class cricket,” Cummins said of 22-year-old Murphy as he confirmed Australia would not announce their final line-up until after the draw.
“If he gets the nod, he’ll have Nathan Lyon on the other end to work with. He’s ready…whoever we pick is 100 percent ready to go.”
Although Australia will be shorthanded they will face a starless Indian team including speedy Jasprit Bumrah and wicketkeeper-batter Rishabh Pant, both of whom have thwarted them in recent series.
There is an air of vulnerability in India, although the resurgence of superstar Virat Kohli, who has met mixed fortunes in many lively clashes against Australia, should inspire confidence that his incredible home record can continue.
If they don’t, Australia could potentially use an opening to climb the biggest mountain in Test cricket and win its biggest prize – yes, bigger than the Test World Cup.
A triumph in the roughest terrain would surely send unbridled cheers from the quiet skipper Cummins, who unexpectedly took the captain’s reins just over a year ago.