ADELAIDE (AFP) – Australia’s cricketers face the most difficult match of their lives Tuesday when they take to the field for the first time since the tragic death of teammate Phillip Hughes.
Just days after gathering for Hughes’ heart-wrenching funeral, all eyes will be on the players to see how they cope with the weight of emotion against India in Adelaide for the rescheduled first Test.
Australian officials are monitoring closely the psychological well-being of squad members following the shattering loss of Hughes, who died from bleeding to the brain after being hit by a bouncer during a domestic game.
A sports psychologist has been with the team and coach Darren Lehmann is attempting to get them in the right frame of mind after a period of national mourning that forced the first Test — originally scheduled for Brisbane — to be pushed back to this week.
Fast bowler Ryan Harris gave an indication that their resolve was growing, writing in a national newspaper that there was a sense they wanted to win for Hughes, who died aged 25 on November 27.
“Walking down that main street in Macksville, following the hearse and seeing all those people lining the side of the road really struck a chord with me,” he wrote of Wednesday’s funeral in Hughes’ home town.
“It was then that I knocked fellow fast bowler) Mitchell Johnson on the arm and said: ‘Far out, this is why we’ve got to play next week.’”
Vice-captain and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin said the players needed everybody’s help to lift them.
“We need the support of the Australian public and everyone leading into this first Test,” he said.
“We’re looking forward to playing and we need the help of everyone to enjoy the moment and just enjoy the game of cricket.”
Lehmann is looking for more of the aggressive style of play that saw Johnson (37 wickets) and Harris (22) demolish England’s batting as Australia swept to a 5-0 Ashes series victory at home last season.
That could spell impending doom for the tourists, who have struggled for any meaningful match practice ahead of the four-Test series in a country where they have traditionally struggled.
Even with now retired batting greats Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and V.V.S. Laxman, India were hammered 4-0 in the last series in Australia in 2011-12 and overall they have won just five of 40 Tests there.
Just four months ago, the Indians, under M.S. Dhoni, capitulated 3-1 in England where the five-Test series finished with a colossal innings and 244-run loss at The Oval that culminated in the tourists collapsing to 94 all out.
Cricket great Sunil Gavaskar accused India of “embarrassing the country”.
India also folded inside three days during an innings and 54-run defeat in the fourth Test and have now won just three and lost 14 of their 23 Tests away from the sub-continent in the last four years.
Dhoni is recovering from a wrist injury and may not lead in Adelaide, but he could become the most defeated captain away from home in the history of the game if India lose three of the four Tests in Australia.
The tourists will rely on batsman Virat Kohli, who scored 116 in his last Test appearance at the Adelaide Oval, opener Murali Vijay, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan.
How they cope with Johnson and Harris on Australia’s fast, bouncy pitches will be crucial to their chances.
Australia themselves are coming off a heavy 2-0 loss to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in October where they were flummoxed by spin.
Skipper Michael Clarke, the batting mainstay of the side and one of the players hardest hit by the Hughes tragedy, has been troubled by a third hamstring setback since August and may not play.
If he withdraws, Shaun Marsh will line-up alongside his brother Mitchell for the first time in Tests.
The Australians also have explosive opener David Warner, unorthodox strokemaker Steve Smith and the experience of veterans Shane Watson and Chris Rogers.
But however the opening day pans out, it will undoubtedly be a sombre affair with a range of tributes to Hughes planned, including players wearing his Test number 408 under the Australian emblem instead of their own.