Virat Kohli and the Indian team management have a great deal of work ahead of a crucial third Test to be played at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). With the Series between India and Australia tied at one-all, the Boxing Day Test match assumes great significance for both the teams. The Indians, as the current holders of the Border Gavaskar Trophy, will retain it in case the series ends in a draw. But Australia has a great chance to win the trophy from the Indians after having bounced back at Perth from one down. If there is a stalemate in this match too, the import will simply be transferred to the fourth Test match to be played at the Sidney Cricket Ground on 3 January.
The team has had five days of rest, but the team management would have spent most of their time at their drawing boards. India’s concern so far has been their batting department. The Indian openers KL Rahul and Murali Vijay have been all at sea and have put pressure on Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. Although the three have done the bulk of the scoring in the two Tests so far, the batsmen that come after them too have not shown much inclination of staying at the wicket and shore up the teams total. Sharma and Vihari who have played two innings each as the sixth batsmen have not contributed significantly.
Rishab Pant coming in at number 7 has scored more than 25 runs in each of the four innings he has played so far but has found himself among the tail-enders and looking to farm the strike. The performance by the Indian tail has not been anything to write home about either. What we saw in the first two tests tells us that India’s batting line-up has been very fragile. The Australians will also be looking for a number six batsman because Handscomb’s tactics haven’t worked very well so far. It was the Australian bowlers who scored 82 runs in the two innings at Perth, while the Indians bowlers only scored only 11 runs in theirs. With the Melbourne pitch having a reputation as batsman-friendly, particularly after a drab draw in the Boxing Day Test between the hosts and England last year, both teams will be looking to include an all-rounder who can bat at number six.
The Indian contingent was dealt a blow when their opener Prithvi Shaw sprained his ankle in the practice match before the first Test and had to return home. Kohli still has Mayank Agarwal, who replaced Shaw, and Parthiv Patel, the diminutive wicketkeeper, to choose from if he wants to. But from Kohli’s comments after the Perth Test, it is unlikely that he would gamble by choosing either of them on the bouncier Australian wickets even if it is Melbourne. So while KL Rahul and Murali Vijay will most likely open, Kohli himself, Chateshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane will remain in place.
Both the teams have played the first two matches with four bowlers each and that might not suit them in Melbourne if it turns out to be a high scoring match. For India, Hardik Pandya, who has recovered from an injury sustained during the Asia Cup in the UAE, is likely to be in the playing eleven at the cost of Hanuma Vihari. Australia will more likely than not, call in Mitchell Marsh, who was on the bench for the first two matches, in place of Peter Handscomb. Both these all-rounders will bolster the batting strength of their respective teams while easing the workload of the frontline pace bowlers. That Ravichandran Ashwin will be fit to play in the upcoming Test is a big relief for India and it will mean that Umesh Yadav will have to sit out.
The Indian fast bowlers have bowled exceedingly well in the two Tests hitherto played and have improved with every inning. So Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ajinkya Rahane are expected to complete the Indian eleven. Australia too will not make too many changes. With Aaron Finch deemed fit after the finger injury he sustained in the Perth Test, the first batsmen five will remain the same. Nathan Lyon has been the most outstanding bowler for Australia having taken 16 Indian wickets in the two matches despite much talk about pace and bounce. Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins will complete the Australian line-up though there is a good chance that Chris Tremain may be handed his debut cap.
With MCG’s reputation as a placid wicket, any Test team would prefer to bat first on it. The intention would be to put as many runs on the board as possible and exert pressure on the opponents and also avoid batting last on a pitch that might deteriorate with time. But Kohli has so far won only two tosses in the ten away Test matches that he has led India in. The Indian team will, therefore, hope that luck favours their captain on Boxing Day at Melbourne. If the Indian batsmen perform anywhere close to their worth as it appears on paper, there is no reason why India cannot take an unassailable lead in the Test at Melbourne. Cricket enthusiasts can look forward to some absorbing cricket.