BGT 2023 | Spin to win: Building up to the finely balanced Nagpur Test

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The beginning of the long-awaited Border-Gavaskar Trophy is around the corner as Rohit Sharma’s India are all set to lock horns with the high-flying Pat Cummins-led Australia in Nagpur. Let’s all pad up to witness two of the most brutal forces in this format going head-to-head for elusive glory.

The time has come for players to get involved in ugly spats as the India-Australia rivalry is ready to get underway once again on February 9 in Nagpur’s Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium. As usual, this will be a four-match affair, albeit for the last time between the two sides as confirmed by both BCCI and Cricket Australia (CA) before they switch to a five-match series. India, under Rohit Sharma, will look to make four consecutive series triumphs over Australia, a feat which would help them cement their place in the final of the World Test Championship (WTC). 

Australia, on the other hand, will seek to replicate a valiant performance similar to what they staged during their 2004/05 India tour, which they won by 2-1 – the only time they emerged victorious as a touring side in the country. In this ongoing WTC cycle, they have only lost once and won 10 out of 15 matches, which has helped them register an astronomical PCT of 75.56, almost 17 higher than India’s 58.93.

When was the last time Australia played a Test match in Nagpur?

Australia played their last Test match in Nagpur during their 2008 tour of India, their only red-ball game at this venue to date. Interestingly, it was also the first Test match to be ever held at this venue. Back then, Ricky Ponting was the captain of a juggernaut that boasted the likes of Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, Brett Lee, and Mitchell Johnson amongst other stars and familiar faces. Yet, they were 1-0 down against MS Dhoni & his boys before traveling to Nagpur, where they were scheduled to play the fourth and final game of the series.

What happened back then?

Batting first, India rode on Sachin Tendulkar’s crafty 109 and Sourav Ganguly’s fine 85 to post 441 in the first innings. Their evergreen duo, ably assisted by Virender Sehwag (66), VVS Laxman (65), and Dhoni (56), made sure India had little chance to lose the game. 

For Australia, Jason Krejza, who only played two Tests, had an outing to remember for ages. On his all-format international debut (he also played eight ODIs), the spinner made a name for himself by returning figures of 43.5-1-215-8. He bowled beautifully in the second innings as well, picking four for 143, including that famous VVS Laxman wicket which was later shortlisted for ball of the century.

In response, Australia batted vividly as well to keep the hosts in check, making 355 with Simon Katich being the top-scorer with a superb 102, well supported by Michael Hussey (90). Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra did the most damage for India, sharing five wickets between them while Ishant Sharma, who finished as the leading wicket-taker of the series with 15 scalps, claimed 2/64.

Harbhajan Singh celebrating Ricky Ponting's wicket in Nagpur.

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Harbhajan Singh celebrating Ricky Ponting's wicket in Nagpur.

To make matters worse, India batted at 3.56 runs an over in the second innings to put up a total of 295, setting Australia an improbable target of 381. Sehwag stepped up yet again, taking just 107 balls for his blazing 92, while twin fifties from Dhoni (55) and Harbhajan (52) helped them revive from 166/6.

Australia knew it would be difficult to get the job done. Yet, a determined Matthew Hayden’s 77 off just 93 balls helped produce a spirited counterattack but received little support from his teammates. Cameron White’s unbeaten 26 was the second-highest score as they were folded for 209 after 50.2 overs, leading India to reclaim the Border-Gavaskar trophy for the first time in eight years. Notably, it was Ganguly's last Test match.

Sourav Ganguly bids farewell to Nagpur crowd.

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Sourav Ganguly bids farewell to the Nagpur crowd.

How has Nagpur fared over the years for India in Tests?

Nagpur’s Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium have hosted six Test matches thus far, of which India ended up winning four matches. India’s last Test at this venue was against Sri Lanka back in November 2017 which they won by innings and 239 runs, with Virat Kohli taking all the limelight with a splendid 213. South Africa are the only team to have beaten India in Nagpur in this format. The gruesome result for India came in February 2010, when Hashim Amla’s unbeaten 253 made headlines in South Africa’s an innings and six-run victory. In the other fixture of the six, which took place in December 2012, England drew with India.

The margin of victories (except the England fixture) in Nagpur Tests were 172 runs, an innings and six runs, an innings and 198 runs (against New Zealand in November 2010), 124 runs (against South Africa in November 2015), and an innings and 239 runs, suggesting that the venue tends to produce one-sided affairs, predominantly in India’s favour. 

Who can be the standout performer from either side in the first Test between the two heavyweights?

Ranking-wise, India and Australia are the two top Test-playing sides across the world. Even in the ongoing World Test Championship (WTC), they are the outright favourites to make it to the final. Thus, safe to mention, both sides boast of having numerous match-winners who can turn the tide for their side at any moment of the contest. However, both sides will miss a few key cogs in the first Test as Jasprit Bumrah, Mitchell Starc, and Josh Hazlewood are all injured. Let’s take a look at who can step up in their absence.

Ravichandran Ashwin

Ravi Ashwin celebrating a wicket of Steve Smith.

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Ravi Ashwin celebrating the wicket of Steve Smith.

With 50 wickets from eight matches at an average of 23.16, Ashwin sits in third place on the wicket-taking chart against Australia amongst Indians at home. Besides, his performance in recent years in India has improved massively: since January 2021, the off-spinner has taken 50 scalps from 14 matches at an average of just 15.4. Surely, the Aussies will play him more carefully than anyone else.

Ravindra Jadeja

Many might be surprised to know that Jadeja’s Test bowling average is even better than Ashwin's against Australia in India. The stylish all-rounder has 49 wickets in eight matches averaging 18.02 and would be looking to improve his numbers even more when he makes the much-anticipated return to the international setup in Nagpur. He recently played in Ranji Trophy for Saurashtra in Chepauk and made an impact straightaway by picking 7/53 against Tamil Nadu in the second innings.

Nathan Lyon

Unsurprisingly, Lyon would be in focus amongst the Australian bowlers, especially considering that he is the joint-second highest-wicket taker against India (34 wickets in seven matches @30.58), behind Richie Benaud (52 wickets in eight matches @18.38), and alongside Graham McKenzie (34 wickets in eight matches @19.26), and Shane Warne (34 wickets in nine matches @43.11). If he produces something in Nagpur similar to what his fellow offie Krejza did 15 years ago, India might find themselves on the back foot.

Steven Smith

Steve Smith and Virat Kohli having a light chat.

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Steve Smith and Virat Kohli having a light chat.

Smith, the undisputed king of modern-day Test cricket, averages 60 in red-ball cricket in India, tallying a total of 660 runs from 12 innings. He had a spectacular Test series against South Africa lately at home, aggregating 231 runs in three innings to find himself at the top of the run-scorers chart. Thus, don’t be surprised if he lit up the series from the very beginning with the support of his partner-in-crime Marnus Labuschagne.

What are the key match-ups that could decide the fate of the Nagpur Test?

Virat Kohli vs Nathan Lyon

Nathan Lyon and Virat Kohli had fierce battles in the past.

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Nathan Lyon and Virat Kohli have had fierce battles in the past.

In India in Tests, Lyon has got the better of Kohli four times and conceded 93 runs against him at an average of 23.2. The talismanic Indian would be striving to register the long-awaited 28th hundred in the longest format of the game, and it will be interesting to see how he handles Lyon, someone who has not historically dominated in the past. Against right-arm off-breaks, Kohli’s record in India overall is quite impressive, averaging 46 for 1,489 runs and also striking at 61.8, six more than his career strike rate (55.80). Hence, this should be a cracker of a match-up to look forward to as the winner of this mini-battle can play a pivotal role in either team’s favour.

David Warner vs Ravichandran Ashwin

The Ashwin versus Warner battle should be a treat to watch.

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The Ashwin versus Warner battle should be a treat to watch.

Ashwin’s excellent record against left-handers is nothing new to the cricket world as his numbers tell he has 312 Test wickets against southpaws in 51 matches in India, averaging 21.16. However, against Warner, he is yet to flourish as he usually does. Their head-to-head record shows Warner averages almost 30 (29.2) against India’s talismanic bowler. Against right-arm off-breaks overall, Warner’s Test average in India stands at 31, having amassed 186 runs. Therefore, the mind games between the two veterans of the sport is set to provide some exciting content for the spectators.

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