Not really the weakest side…
The names Peter Toohey, Gary Cosier, Wayne Clark, Sam Gannon are not really etched with letters of gold on the landscape of Test cricket. Or even Australian cricket. None of them really had distinguished international careers, and that is putting it very mildly.
Bobby Simpson did possess one of the best Test records of all time, especially as an opening batsman. Among all the openers with more than 3000 Test runs, he ranks after only Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton in terms of batting average. But his great deeds had been performed before 1968. He did not do too badly when recalled to lead the beleaguered side almost a decade later at the age of 42.
In fact, 539 runs at 53.9 with two hundreds underlined the permanence of his class. But, Australia did have to dig that deep to come out with the next layer of quality players. Such was their woeful state with the Kerry Packer extravaganza scooping several strata of talent from their cricketing scene.
Only Jeff Thomson, lured by vice-captaincy and constrained by a major operation, still sprinted in to bowl quick in short bursts. However, even he was no longer the force he used to be a couple of seasons earlier alongside Dennis Lillee.
This formed the core of the Australian team of 1977-78. Apart from other nondescript figures in the likes of Tony Mann, Alan Oglivie, Ian Callen. None of them really dazzling stars of the cricket world.
There was a scattering of very young men who were not deemed good enough to be approached by the recruiting generals of Packer. Some of them went on to enjoy decent careers. But those were early days for them. And even otherwise Kim Hughes, Graham Yallop and John Dyson will never be counted among the best of Australian cricketers.
This team of Australia was the weakest ever that India played Down Under. And the Indians, in contrast, were full strength.
Led by Bishan Singh Bedi, they had amongst them names like Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagawat Chandrasekhar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Syed Kirmani and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. Yes, Vengsarkar was relatively new to the side, yet to emerge as a world-class performer. But the rest of them were in their respective primes.
This Indian team lost 2-3 to the motley group of hastily assembled third-string Australian cricketers. Two Tests were lost by very slim margins, Australia were outplayed comprehensively in two more. The visitors made a desperate attempt to chase down 493 in the final innings of the series, ending with 445 after being 415 for 6 at one stage. But, the end result was the loss of yet another series.
That was by far the best chance India had of winning a series in Australia. No matter how much we are led to believe that this current Australian side about to face the Indians is the worst of the lot, the 1977-78 side will still go down as the most shambolic outfit by a considerable distance.
The next time the Indians had an easy team to beat was in 1985-86. Those were the days when Australia had become one of the weakest sides in world cricket. They were still trying to stuff players of various calibres and skills in order to plug the huge holes left by the departure of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. Besides these huge names, Lennie Pascoe, Kim Hughes, Doug Walters and some others had also moved away from the scene. Only Alan Border remained, standing tall amidst the embryonic stages of a side under reconstruction.
Craig McDermott was a greenhorn. So were David Boon, Geoff Marsh and Greg Ritchie. Merv Hughes was making his Test debut, as was Steve Waugh. It would take a long, long while before this unit was transformed into the makings of a world champion side.
Once again, India was full of seasoned pros. Kapil Dev the great all-rounder led the side, Gavaskar was the senior statesman, Vengsarkar was rapidly emerging as the best batsman of the world and Mohinder Amarnath was still going strong. It was, however, spin which almost won it for the Indians. The duo of Shivlal Yadav and Ravi Shastri brought them tantalisingly close to two Test victories. But they were stopped short by some stubborn Australian resistance, questionable umpiring, fickle weather and some quixotic tactics.
In the second Test at Melbourne, a venue that has traditionally been rather unkind to visiting Indian sides, the tourists needed 120 runs in the final innings, two sessions to take the lead in the series, with a weather warning looming large. They did get 25 overs till Tea, and managed to crawl to 60 for 2, Gavaskar batting over an hour and consuming 54 balls for his 8 runs. The heavens opened up thereafter, and the Indians were left sharing a series that should have been theirs but for the lack of urgency.
That was perhaps the other Australian side there to be beaten.
India did not manage that.
Man to man, given the amount of experience the team had at that point of time, the 1985-86 Australians cannot be said to be better than the current crop.
In fact, if we look at the Australian bowling, with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon they form a very formidable line-up. It ranks with some of the best India has faced in the southern land, if we leave aside the heady McGrath-Warne days of 1999. The Indian batsmen will have their task cut out in trying to negotiate the abundant amount of pace and bounce, garnished with reverse swing and the wily off-spin that they will be faced with.
Yes, Steven Smith and David Warner are absent from the line-up. Indeed, they were the two best batsmen of Australia. In fact, Smith was by some distance the best batsman in the world. Taking field without those two is not easy by any means. Especially against a bowling attack that is perhaps the best in the history of Indian cricket.
But, does that make them the weakest Australian side faced by the Indians?
Not by a long stretch. We just have to look at the teams fielded in 1977-78 and 1985-86 to see how weak the opposition has been in the past, and yet how difficult it has been for India to force the issue.
When two of the best are absent
Blasphemous as it may sound, but I would rather compare this current team with the unit put forward during the Indian visit of 2003-04. No, that was not a great Australian side. It was during a long era of Australian dominance, but while the batting of the side fielded by the hosts remained brilliant, it was one of the weakest in terms of bowling.
Just like the current team is missing Smith and Warner, that Australian side was without Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Not only the best bowlers of Australia, two of the all-time greatest bowlers of the world. And in two of the Tests, Brett Lee did not play either. When India won in Adelaide, the bowling attack comprised of Jason Gillespie, Brad Williams, Andy Bichel and Stuart MacGill. But, then Lee returned and the lead was surrendered. Once again, India failed to carry on to a series win.
The fact remains that Australia in Australia remains a difficult side to beat, especially for the Indians who are brought up in conditions very different from the ones found Down Under.
The Test series is not going to be a cakewalk. The chances are that the shaky Australian batting will put up a fight in familiar conditions. The Indian batting, barring the genius of Virat Kohli, has been rather inconsistent as well whenever the action has shifted overseas. And the formidable crop of Australian bowlers will be at them all day, enjoying wickets which they know so well.
As for the Indian seamers, phenomenal as they have been, they will be without the lateral movement that has helped their cause in South Africa and England. The ball does not move around that much in Australia. They are likely to find it a demanding task to match the firepower of the home bowlers.
So, from where I am sitting, the hype around the banned duo notwithstanding, India does not quite start as the favourites. But, on the upside, the chances are that it will be a closely contested series with plenty to play for.