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India v Australia Test series: The battles Steve Smith must win to beat the odds

According to the bookies, India are more likely to beat Australia in their Test series than Winx is to beat Mister Ed. If the Border-Gavaskar series, starting in Pune on Thursday, were to be played a theoretical 11 times, Australia would be backable to win it just once. At best. And even that is beyond punters' capacity for optimism.

Against such a tide of sentiment and supposedly informed opinion, you might wonder if the Australians newly arrived in India have already subconsciously adjusted to defeat, or have conditioned themselves, like the rest of the world, to believing that they are facing a team of Supermen. If the bowlers can miraculously get through Kohli, Pujara, Vijay and co, how will the batsmen ever keep out Ashwin and Jadeja?

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The pressure on Australia – as with so many international cricket teams away from the succour of home – is that while Virat Kohli, in pool parlour parlance, only needs to sink the key balls at key times, Steve Smith needs to run the table four times in four weeks. India only need to win a share of the main battles, whereas Australia must win them all. So what are those contests?

Attack, defence – it's not an either/or. The ostensible push-pull between Steve Smith and David Warner about prioritising defence or attack is a moot point. The Australians can only win if they have multiple game plans for different situations. Sometimes they will need to hold the fort, with bat or ball. Sometimes – if they are to win – they will need to mount an all-out assault.

What matters is that, whatever their plan in a particular session of play, they are clear and committed in their thinking. Too often, muddle-headed visiting teams echo the title of an English social cricket club's wonderful newsletter: NO! YES! WAIT, GO BACK!!

David Warner must bat sessions

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In his outstanding Test career, only one of the Australian vice-captain's 18 Test centuries has lasted a day. If he scores a hundred in a session, as he did in Sydney last month, Warner can set the tone of a Test match in Australia, but in India it will barely touch the sides.

For Australia's batsmen to apply pressure to India, they must keep the hosts in the field for two days at a time. A first innings of 400 in a day, all out, might offer entertainment but ultimately just gives India the chance to occupy the crease.

Matthew Wade must take his chances

In 2013, Brad Haddin was confident of regaining his Test wicketkeeping place because he did not believe Wade's technique would survive four Test matches in India. It barely survived two. Wade is a better gloveman now, but he must take every chance his bowlers create.

Miss a Kohli stumping off Nathan Lyon, and hear the sound of 11 Australian hearts breaking.

Plenty of weight on the shoulders: Mitchell Starc.

Plenty of weight on the shoulders: Mitchell Starc. Photo: Getty Images

The pacemen must take wickets

Much has been made of Australia's gamble on inexperienced spinners, but if India's opening batsmen are still batting when those spinners come on, the game will be halfway lost. Josh Hazlewood, the attack leader, seems as well-suited to India as Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz were in their historic win in 2004 (Australia's only series victory in India since 1969-70).

Mitchell Starc would like to improve his control from his Australian summer – in India, he won't get away with short-pitched chaff – but more than anything, by hook or by crook, the new ball bowlers must get batsmen out.

Get Kohli

Yes, that can sound like "A quick five wickets and we're back in the match''. Kohli is in intimidating, meat-loving form, and he loves beating Australia like old Tom Mooney used to love scoring tries. Loves it! Kohli inspires his teammates so much that his psychological dominance can (in a best-case scenario for Australia) be a potential weakness. If Kohli should fail, India's mood could turn to anxiety. Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are fine batsmen who ride in the lee of Kohli's abrasive leadership. In 2004, a disconsolate captain, Sourav Ganguly, brought his team down with him. Australia cannot win if Kohli dominates them, because if he does, he will not dominate alone.

Resilience

The 2004 team slumped when Ricky Ponting went down with a broken thumb before the series. Expectations fell. But their resilience was so strong, they won without him. In a winning team, no single part is indispensable.

The current Australian team does not have the firepower of 2004, but, as the stand-in captain in that victory Adam Gilchrist has said, self-belief can putty up any number of gaps.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

In their recent series in India, England dominated the first Test match in Rajkot. England's assertive batting and bowling exposed Indian self-doubt and showed them to be less than supermen. Then, when India were lying wounded, Alastair Cook decided that it would be a good idea to make sure he didn't lose. England could have won, should have won, but, due to cautious captaincy, didn't win. And their one big chance was gone, never to return.

So far, Smith's tactical approach has been sound and sensible without the bloodlust of predecessors Michael Clarke, Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor. When a chance arises, it must be treated as a once-in-a-lifetime. Cook's example must be in Smith's mind – as a negative.

When those pivotal opportunities arrive, he might ask himself what would Cookie do, and then do the opposite. (Which is another reason why Joe Root's ascension to the England captaincy means danger for Australia in the Ashes.)

India is fun

In 1998 and 2001, Australia took champion teams to India and were spanked. Among that generation, some players frankly did not like being in India and were on a permanent short fuse. The current generation is different. They have played vastly more cricket in India than their forebears, from youth tours through to Indian Premier League, and will not be as quick to seek excuses and someone to blame. Enjoying India used to be a project of willpower; for this generation, it should come naturally.

Is it possible? Bookies, after all, are just speculators, not oracles. And more often than you'd think, they are wrong. There are probably better reasons to cheer for the improbable, if not the miraculous, than to see the naysayers proven wrong, but a philosophical outlook is just another way of taking the side of the unexpected.

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