It’s not often that India have gone into the third Test of a series in these conditions with the rubber still theirs for the taking. The Perth defeat notwithstanding, India still carry far too many guns for their inexperienced but plucky opponents.
This Indian side isn’t as bad as the margin of defeat – 146 runs – in Perth suggests nor is it a reflection of Australia’s superior quality. In the past, we have seen, Indian teams wilt beyond revival after a debilitating defeat such as the one in the second Test. But with the pitch here not going to be remotely as menacing as the one in Perth, India can think they stand a better chance given their experienced batting unit. After an inspiring show in Adelaide, the Indians let themselves down with dubious selections and lack of spunk with the bat but the series is still 1-1 and the tourists have the men and the means to make it 2-1.
Moving away from their long-followed convention of disclosing the playing XI only on the day of the match, India announced their side that will take the park in the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Tuesday itself, the eve of the game. If this was not radical enough, they left out both their struggling openers – M Vijay and K L Rahul – and included rookie Mayank Agarwal and seasoned campaigner Rohit Sharma. You can either call it a statement of intent or a panic reaction depending upon which side of the fence you are sitting, but the Indian team management wasn’t left with too many choices at their disposal.
Chairman of selectors MSK Prasad revealed that Hanuma Vihari will open the innings along with Agarwal with Rohit coming in at six. With Jadeja slated at eight, the Indian batting has found some depth unlike in the second Test when the tail started after Rishabh Pant. It may appear a bit unfair to make Vihari open the innings in only his third Test in what’s going to be an intimidating atmosphere should India bat first, but the right-hander seems to have the assurance of getting a longer rope from the selectors and the team management. That should do a world of good to his confidence when he walks out to bat with a debutante.
Agarwal’s mind will be a cauldron of emotions and it all boils down to how well he manages to keep them in control. Even an empty MCG looks imposing, and when it’s teeming with people, it can be nerve-racking. Agarwal need not look beyond his best buddy Rahul to get an idea of the buzzing ambience. Even a naturally calm Rahul seemed so nervous when he went out to bat that he played uncharacteristically big shots to lose his wicket cheaply in both innings. This is exactly what Agarwal, a more attacking player, should avoid doing.
Rohit gets another lifeline to resurrect his Test career, and the right-hander needs to take the responsibility of holding up the lower middle-order. In 11 Tests played across SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia), he has just two half-centuries and that’s pathetic by his standards. It’s time he set that record straight.
Jadeja’s inclusion provides some control for the bowling attack which sorely missed a spinner in Perth. The left-arm spinner is a tidy operator, and even if he doesn’t get you many wickets, he will slow down the pace with his control while helping the pacers rotate at the other end with his long spells. And not to forget his batting, which was again an issue for India in Perth.
Australia have included pace-bowling all-rounder Mitchell Marsh in place of Peter Handscomb in a bid to add more resources to their attack without sacrificing their batting strength. While they did show a lot character in fighting back to level the series, Australia’s batting still looks fragile and that could be their undoing.