MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Facing a stronger Australia and with only fleeting involvement from talisman Virat Kohli, India need everything to go right for them over four taxing tests if they are to deliver another series win Down Under two years after their breakthrough tour.
Kohli led India to a 2-1 triumph in 2018/19 but the soon-to-be dad will hand over the reins to deputy Ajinkya Rahane after next week's series-opener in Adelaide.
Few in cricket-mad India would begrudge Kohli's baby joy, but covering for the loss of his leadership, batting and chutzpah will require a huge collective effort from the players that remain.
Kohli's paternity leave is just one of a number of twists in the buildup to a series that has been on a knife-edge for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and government health protocols.
A cluster of infections in South Australia a month ago threatened to scupper the opening test but with the outbreak contained a crowd of up to 27,000 will be allowed to file into Adelaide Oval for day one on Dec 17.
Organisers will nonetheless be on tenterhooks throughout the series as it moves to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, especially given the biosecurity failure in South Africa that saw England's tour recently called off midway through.
India's tour is worth several hundred million dollars to Australian cricket, which relies heavily on the South Asian nation's massive broadcast market.
The series also comes as a much-needed diversion for COVID-weary fans, who can expect a beguiling match-up between Tim Paine's top-ranked test team and Kohli's third-ranked side.
India's 2018/19 win over Australia was the first ever by an Asian side Down Under, a psychological breakthrough in a land where spin is a side dish to pace's main course.
Conjuring another series victory against the hosts would be an arguably greater triumph.
Australia were at their lowest ebb two years ago, with batsmen Steve Smith and David Warner suspended and the team scarred by the humiliations of the 2018 ball-tampering scandal.
They are a sterner outfit this time around, even with Warner to miss at least Adelaide after tearing an adductor muscle during the one-day series.
With back-to-back centuries, Smith was in marauding form during the ODIs and will be desperate to make amends for his absence two years ago. [L4N2IQ17C]
Smith and Warner no longer have to shoulder the burden of scoring alone, with Marnus Labuschagne now a bolted-on number three following his glorious 2019/20 season.
Questions remain at the top of the order, however, with opener Joe Burns struggling and Warner's prospective replacement Will Pucovski a doubt after suffering concussion from a head-knock in the tour match against India A.
India have their own batting issues and a big hole to fill once Kohli departs.
Rahane is likely to promote himself to number four in Kohli's absence, but India have no locked-in opening partner for Mayank Agarwal and there are doubts about the fitness of all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja.
India will feel more confident in their bowling stocks, even without the experience of injured paceman Ishant Sharma.
Bringing the pace to extract reward from Australia's fast and bouncy wickets, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami took 37 wickets between them in the 2018/19 series, humbling Australia's vaunted pace trio of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.
Bumrah and Shami will have Umesh Yadav in support this time, while Australia will back Cummins and company to restore order.
With both squads confined to biosecure hubs over the course of a long tour, player management could prove critical if the series remains alive to the final test in Brisbane.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)