In 18 Tests spread over 15 years, Harbhajan Singh took 95 wickets against Australia. Now, four years after his last appearance against them, the man once dubbed The Turbanator has raised hackles in the Australian camp with his Glenn McGrath-like prediction of India winning 4-0 – 3-0 if Australia play well, he added charitably.
Nathan Lyon, his fellow offspinner, flat-batted a query about it two days before the start of the Pune Test. Steven Smith, Lyon’s captain, showed a little more animation on Wednesday (February 22). “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however I don’t believe that’s [going to be] the case,” he said. “I’m confident in the squad we’ve got here to compete against India. No doubt it’s going to be a difficult series. India have played some very good cricket of late, particularly at home. We’re under no illusions there, it’s going to be tough. But we’ve got the squad that can compete in these conditions.”
Virat Kohli, whose side has won eight of nine home Tests this season, also wasn’t about to sing from the Harbhajan sheet. “We are not treating this series different from any others in the past,” he said. “England was a very tough series. To start off with a draw, which was not a convincing draw from our side. From there on, we turned things around. That took a lot of character.
“The team is in a different mind space ever since that first [England] game in Rajkot. We come into the series much more confident and much more sure about us as a squad and what we want to do. We don’t need to focus too much on the opposition. At the same time, we respect them. The last game, we respected Bangladesh equally.”
If you trawl through the pages of Test history, you’ll find very few examples of Australian Test captains pronouncing that the team they lead are rank outsiders heading into a series. Yet, Smith, who has been in stellar form with the bat since taking over the captaincy, had little hesitation in accepting that status.
“I guess we are the underdogs in this series,” he said. “You hear comments like Harbhajan who expect us to lose 4-0. That’s not how we feel. We want to compete here against India. It’s going to be a tough series. They’ve got some quality players in their line-up from 1 to 11.
“I guess what I want to see from my boys is the ability to adapt to the plans we have in place, show some fight and resilience in tough situations. There are going to be difficult moments in games, some key moments that we need to identify. Hopefully, we can have the skills in place and plans in place and mindsets in place to counteract those difficult moments.”
Part of the challenge for Smith is to get the best out of a spin-heavy bowling group. They underwhelmed in Sri Lanka in 2016, as the inexperienced hosts romped to a 3-0 victory. “Things didn’t go to plan there, but as a captain I’ve learnt a bit about how to go about things in the subcontinent,” said Smith. “Playing in these conditions, there’s a different tempo, times when you need to attack and times when you need to defend.
“So for me as captain, it’s about identifying these periods quickly and not letting the game get away too much before you start to defend, or attacking quick enough.”
Having lost their last nine Tests in Asia, there’s no shortage of motivation for Smith and his written-off crew. “Obviously, some of the away performances of late haven’t been up to standard from my point of view and the Australian cricket team’s point of view,” he said. “We want to change the way we play away from home. We want to be more adaptable to conditions and show some fight.”
For his part, Kohli was quite confident of how this Pune pitch would play, with India likely to include Jayant Yadav to bolster an already frightening spin attack. “Even in the one-day games that we have played here, the surface was dry underneath,” he said. “It had a decent covering of grass which you need to keep for the surface to hold itself together. This time of the year when the summer comes in, the wicket tends to get slower and lower. So that’s what we expect from this wicket as well.
“We expect it to turn from day two, day three. In general, it’s going to be a very basic Pune wicket, what we always expect during summer time because it gets very hot and dry.”
For Smith and Australia, the challenge isn’t only about negotiating sharp turn. It’s also about coping with the deliveries that don’t, a skill that both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are masters of. “I think that’s one of the big challenges of playing spin bowling in Asia – uncertainty of what the ball’s going to do off the pitch,” said Smith. “Playing spin in Australia, the bounce and the spin is generally pretty consistent.
“For us, it’s ensuring we have a plan to play against the spinners like Ashwin, Jadeja and the other spinner that they are going to choose tomorrow. It’s making sure that you have a plan in place. Most of the time, you can’t pick them out of the hand.”
The challenge will be as much mental as it is technical. “We have come here with a positive mindset,” said Smith. “The more we think about the last time we came here or Sri Lanka, we start to lose the battle straightaway. For me, it’s about trying to learn from what’s come before us but have a positive mindset once we get out there, to know that we have done the preparations and we have all the resources.”
For his part, Kohli promised that there would be no let-up in intensity from India. “We thought even England were a top-quality side with a lot more experience than what Australia has right now,” he said. “But we learnt that if we had sustained pressure maintained on the opposition for long enough, especially in these conditions, it will get difficult for them.
“That’s something we focused on, and we are going to focus on now as well. We are not going to sit here and judge or focus on how good or how weak the [Australian] players can be. We just want to execute our skills and make sure that we have that pressure relentlessly on the opposition throughout the Test match.”