Pune: On a fairytale 19-match unbeaten streak, India would seek extension of their incredible dominance on home turf when they clash against an aggressive Australia in the four-Test series, beginning here tomorrow. The series against the Steve Smith-led side is the fourth and last home series of the 2016-17 season for India, who have conjured up emphatic victories over New Zealand (3-0), England (4-0) and Bangladesh (one-off Test).
India are going into the rubber, seeking their seventh successive series win going back to the three-Test away series against Sri Lanka in 2015. There are several factors in India's stupendous run, chief among those being captain Virat Kohli's phenomenal run with the bat. The young captain has truly led from the front by notching up four double hundreds. Kohli is averaging over 80 after accumulating 1457 runs in the last 13 Tests and Australia will need to find ways to curtail his brilliance to stop the Indian Juggernaut.
The other major factor has been the excellent bowling by spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, incidentally the top two bowlers in the ICC rankings. Off-spinner Ashwin has grabbed 78 wickets in 13 games during the same period with 8 five-fors at an average of just over 24 while left-armer Jadeja has scalped 49 wickets in 10 Tests at just under 25. The spin twins, who combined forces to rout New Zealand and England, again pose a major threat to the Australians.
In addition to these three players' consistent performance, the support from batsmen such as opener Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara and from other bowlers has been invaluable. The stubborn lower-order batting has often helped the team come out of tricky situations and score big. As coach Anil Kumble pointed out yesterday, India have not fielded the same eleven during this successful phase due to a variety of reasons including injuries. But each replacement has been bang-on and delivered the goods.
India's unbeaten 19-Test run commenced with a victory in the second Test of the series in Sri Lanka. At home, India have not tasted defeat since drawing the fourth and final Test of the 2012-13 series against England. During this period they have played 20 Tests, won 17 and drawn three, a fine record by any reckoning.
And their win-loss record over the last 20 Tests, both home and away, is 15-1. This is the sort of challenge the Australians face as they go into the series opener at the Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium on a pitch where the ball will "fly", according to curator and former pacer Pandurang Salgaonkar.
Australia have not won a Test -- let alone a series-- in India since 2004-05 when they defeated the hosts 2-1. Since then they lost 2-0 twice in four-game series and were whitewashed 4-0 on their last visit in 2012-13.
Also Australia's series victory in India prior to the one in the 2004-05 had come way back in 1969-70, an indication of how tough the Aussies have found it to overcome the hosts on the slow, turning pitches in this country.
India are expected to field two pacers and three spinners -- Ashwin, Jadeja and Jayant Yadav -- who was doing well in the series against England when he picked up an injury and had to sit out of the last Test against England followed by the one-off Test against Bangladesh. The think tank also has the option of giving a Test debut to Chinaman bowler, Kuldeep Yadav who has replaced the injured wrist-spinner Amit Mishra in the squad.
Australian batting will revolve mainly around opener and vice-captain David Warner, who often gives the team flying starts back home, and captain Smith and the other batsmen will have to bat around these two biggies.
While Smith had averaged 40-plus with a highest score of 92 in the two Tests he figured in in 2012-13, 17 out of the left handed Warner's 18 Test hundreds have been scored either at home or in South Africa and he, thus, has a huge point to prove in the sub-continent.
In spite of the twin failures of young Matt Renshaw in the warm-up game in Mumbai, he is expected to partner Warner at the top of the order with Shaun Marsh and captain Smith to follow in that order.
In bowling, left-arm pacer Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood could cause trouble for India if they can extract bounce out of the track with back-up seam support from Mitchell Marsh. Off spinner Nathan Lyon, who was dealt with very severely by Mumbai batsman Shreyas Iyer and Karnataka off-break bowler Krishnappa Gowtham, in the warm-up game, will be the man the visitors would depend on to do the bulk of the bowling during the day along with left arm Stephen O'Keefe. They are also crucial to the visitors' hopes.
The Test match to be held far away from the city's bustling areas has not really attracted a lot of interest among the fans, although this is the first-ever five-day game to be hosted in this city which is deemed as the cultural capital of Maharashtra. Only 8000-odd tickets have been sold for each day and there are plans to fill up empty seats via free entry for school children.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandaran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund, Hardik Pandya.
Australia: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Stephen O'Keefe, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade.
Match commences at 09:30 hours IST.