With the Ashes less than a year away, I know I'll be eagerly watching the upcoming Australia v India test series. The biggest question ahead of the first test, is what the Aussie batting line-up will look like, given the mix of injuries and concussions. For India, with star and captain Virat Kohli absent on paternity leave after this first test, a good performance from the visitors will be important to get a foot in the series. I'll discuss this, and more, in this series preview:
The first test starts this Thursday (the 17th) at 4am GMT, being a day-nighter with the pink ball at the Adelaide Oval.
The MCG then hosts the boxing day test, before the sides go to the SCG for the third test on the 7th of January. The fourth is at the Gabba on the 15th. These three start at 11:30pm GMT in the UK, technically the day before (so the boxing day test starts at 11:30 in the evening on Christmas day.)
Where to watch-
As with all cricket in Australia, the tests will be shown on BT Sport. You can also listen to commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra.
We'll have content on this site, and will also be posting on Twitter @InsideEdgeCrick.
Last time the Indians toured was 2018/19, and Australia, hampered by the absence of David Warner and Steve Smith, as well as being before Marnus Labuschange turned into a Smith double, were well beaten 2-1 by the tourists.
This was despite Australia having their full strength bowling attack (Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon played all four tests), as, through a combination of brilliant batting from Cheteshwar Pujara, well supported by Virat Kohli, and poor batting from Australia, worsened by the impressive bowling of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Ishant Sharma, the Australians were soundly beaten. So, will it happen again?
The main difference in the teams will be the boost to Australia's batting line-up. Marnus Labushagne, boosts the XI at three, a position in which he averages 82.61, with his scores last Aussie summer seeing only one innings below fifty, including three hundreds in the five tests.
Steve Smith is back at four, and although he failed to make a hundred in the tests against New Zealand and Pakistan last winter, he looked very good in the ODIs v India, and I would never bet against him scoring runs. He'll want to confirm his position as the best test bat in the world right now, and when he scores runs, Australia are rarely defeated.
Perhaps the only concern for Australia is the groin injury suffered by David Warner in the second ODI. He averages a brilliant 65.94 in Australia, with 75% of his test hundreds coming at home, in just 51% of his matches. Warner will probably return for the second test, but Australia's plans have been through further disarray, as his probable replacement has also been ruled out of the first test.
Will Pucovski, the young talent, would have likely opened, given at just 22 he averages 55 in first-class cricket, and recently hit back-to-back double hundreds. However, he was concussed in one of the warm-up games, his ninth concussion suffered, and will miss the first test.
This leaves Australia still with a gap, but a further twist has been the awful form of incumbent Joe Burns. He has a decent test average of 38, but having made four single figure scores in the two warm-ups, his place is now under question as well.
The likely replacement is Marcus Harris, who has been added to the squad. He has played nine mediocre tests, but made some starts in the warm-ups, and hit a Sheffield Shield 239, which suggests he has some form.
Other options for Australia include promoting Marnus or Matthew Wade to open. Given the partnership on Thursday will probably be Australia's 14th opening combo in the past five years, the performance of numbers 1 and 2 will be interesting to watch ahead of next year's Ashes.
Both Warner and Pucovski are aiming to be fit for the boxing day test.
Dependent on the selection of the openers, the middle order will probably be unchanged. The talented Travis Head will ne at five, captain and keeper Tim Paine at seven, with Wade, as long as he doesn't open, at six.
However, should Wade open, Australia will debut Cameron Green. A tall all-rounder, he scored a century in the first warm-up, but also suffered a concussion. His fitness is unknown, but current rumours he will be playing, which presumes Wade moves up to partner Harris or Burns
Head is aged 26, and averages 42. He made 237 runs in 5 tests last Aussie summer, but was hampered as he came in with the top-order having already scored most of the runs.
Wade debuted in 2012, with a resurgence seen best in his two 2019 Ashes hundreds. He also struggled in 2019/20, with 217 runs in the five tests.
Captain Paine turned 36 a few days ago, and is still yet to score a test 100. He made just one fifty last Aussie summer, and averages just 31.
Despite having what looked like a settled batting line-up, the Aussie prep has been thrown into chaos, with numbers 1, 2 and 6 still being worked out. However, their bowling attack, despite some niggles, is as strong as ever.
Nathan Lyon, Australia's off-spinning GOAT, returns to international cricket. Just 10 wickets away from 400 in tests, Lyon has picked up 9 wickets in three Shield games this season, and will be looking to assert control as the holding option over the Indian line-up. 'Gary' picked up 27 wickets at 21 in the last Aussie summer, and averages 32 against India, and 30 in Australia. How he bowls will be key to the Aussie performance.
The quick trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood are threatening to any side, especially with James Pattinson waiting in the wings. Cummins has played just 30 tests, but has 143 wickets at under 22. Hazelwood has 195 in his 51, with his recent increase in pace making him an even more difficult bowler. Starc is arguably the weakest of the attack. Despite his 244 wickets, he can offer up loose balls, that India will hope to capitalise on. Nevertheless, this Aussie bowling attack is one of the best in the world, and India's batters should be worried.
While not as organised as they might like, Australia still boast a very strong side. Although their top order is weaker without David Warner, they should still feel confident about getting the better of India, especially given the impressive bowling attack that is so good with the pink ball, which will be used for the first test.
Virat Kohli's men last played test cricket in early March, as they were convincingly beaten 2-0 by the ever impressive New Zealand. They struggled against pace and swing, and while New Zealand weren't batting them out of the game, they were doing enough to better the opposition.
Ahead of the series, the Indian squad has not been smoothly announced. Rohit Sharma was initially left-out with an injury, only to be added later, but is still yet to be confirmed as fir, and Ishant Sharma has gone from being in, to in when recovered from injury, to out, with his absence weakening the bowling attack. With Kohli's paternity leave meaning he will play just the first, India's preparation has hardly been stable.
Despite Prithvi Shaw having a hundred and an average of 55 after four tests, the youngster faces being dropped, with concerns over his aggressive style. While he isn't fully in form, I'd oppose this move. This series will prove a challenge for him, but he has the potential, and India ought to back him.
If dropped, his replacement will be Shubman Gill, a more technically normal batter, with a massive first class average of 68. Gill will definitely play dozens of tests for India, but whether Shaw will be dropped is yet to be seen.
The opener who is not being questioned is Mayank Agarwal, who has 3 centuries and four fifties in 11 tests, including scores of 76 and 42 on debut last time in Australia. His performances will be key to getting India off to a good start, given his experience of success with the bat down under.
India's rock is at three. Cheteshwar Pujara averages 48 in 77 tests, and was player of the series last time, for his 521 runs. His ability to wear down bowlers, and bat for ages, are perhaps India's greatest asset against the Aussies.
Virat Kohli will play only the first test of this series, before flying home for paternity leave. With performances in the limited overs series decent, Kohli will want to offer some big runs for his side to help them get a foothold in the series.
India's middle order will see vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane at 5, with Hanuma Vihari at six, and the thrilling Rishabh Pant at seven. While India prefer the better wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha in home tests, it's Pant that often features overseas, with the shot maker on the back of a superb warm-up hundred-having also scored one in the last test series.
Rahane, who is half-way through the seventh year of his test career, will captain the side while Kohli is absent. He averages 42, and is a classic player to watch, and a useful middle-order glue. Vihari, while yet to make a major impression in the test side, is a useful player, and scored a hundred in the warm-ups. A defensive player, he can be expected to bat four in Kolhi's absence.
While India have a good spread of batting options, their bowling, which was so good last time in Oz, is less convincing. Ishant Sharma is missing through injury, a blow that cannot be overstated.
Jasprit Bumrah has 68 wickets in 14 tests, but has struggled for wickets in the ODI series, and in the warm-up match he played. He will have to recover his form, should India have a chance in the series.
Also key will be the experienced Mohammed Shami, who is able to swing both the old and new ball. He has gained pace in recent years, and will want to be in the wickets.
Shami and Bumrah will be accompanied by one of Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj or Navdeep Saini. I'd guess Yadav will get the nod, given he took a three-for in the first warm-up, and neither Saini, nor Siraj have test experience. Both had decent warm-ups, but Yadav has 144 test wickets, and I wouldn't want to debut a quick bowler in Australia.
India's spinner will probably be Ravi Ashwin. He has 365 test wickets, but averages 48 with the ball in Australia. On pitches that may not offer turn, he will be well challenged to try and do a job for his side, especially India go without a fifth bowler. India could also opt for Ravi Jadeja, but his fitness is unclear after a hamstring injury and concussion in the limited overs leg of the tour.
The first test is a day-nighter at Adelaide, starting on December 17th.
Neither side is particular stable, with Australia's top order unknown. Meanwhile, India are also uncertain. Should he be fit, Rohit Sharma may open, or come in at six. Their third fast bowler could be any of Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini and Mohammed Siraj, and the possibility of a fifth bowler playing is an option they may consider.
Wade Labuschagne Smith
Agarwal Shaw Pujara Kohli
Rahane Vihari Pant
Watch out for: Injuries! The limited overs series has seen Marcus Stoinis, David Warner, Ashton Agar, Ravi Jadeja, Moises Henriques and Aaron Finch all pick up niggles, with the warm-up matches seeing Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood, Will Pucovski and Sean Abbot all get niggles, and, given the depleted fitness levels following the Covid breaks, rotation, and luck, will be key.
Should Pujara get runs, India are in this series, as he proved last time.
Turn the TV on when:
Pant is batting. He hits them so unusually, but so hard, and so beautifully. Picture Viv Richards' smoking a 10 year-old to all parts. Got it? Good, because that's how it feels watching Pant.
Josh Hazlewood, who just keeps looking better and better as a bowler.
Marnus Labuschagne is phenomenal at home in Aus.
4-0 Australia. While India may have a chance in the first with Australia unstable, the absence of Kohli in the next two, and probably three, combined with the boosted strength of the Australian line-up, means I don't see how India can sneak out a win.