A lot seems to have happened since the World No. 1 and No. 2 Test teams squared off – often violently, ill temperedly and toe-to-toe – in Bengaluru. India won by 85 runs. But it feels like ages ago. That is half-true. A long gap between the second and third Test in Ranchi, on account of the festival of Holi, seems to have brought this series back to where it began: deadlocked. No momentum. Equal confidence. But now, a two-match shootout. The one thing we know with both these teams: draws are very hard to come by these days. Especially on untested small-town pitches. Especially in India, where the fourth and the fifth day account for more batsmen than all the five days on Australian pitches.
Somehow, though, one feels that Australia gave it their absolute all in the first two matches – leaving nothing in the tank for the next two. They were a session away from being 2-0 up in India – a lead, no team except themselves in 2004, has managed in the last two decades.
Here are four major talking points for the “slow low” Ranchi Test:
NO COUNTRY FOR MITCHELLS
Two matches into the series, and the injuries have begun to pile up. While Murali Vijay sat out the second Test, it was now Australia’s turn to lose stability – and they will play at Ranchi with virtually a new look lower middle-order. Mitchell Starc, Australia’s lead bowler and spearhead, flew back home after suffering a stress fracture. It isn’t only his pace and ability to wipe out the lower order and get breakthroughs against the run of play, but even his resourceful powerful batting that the Aussies will miss. He made some crucial runs in both the low-scoring Tests, before contributing with the ball. They needed Starc to unsettle the Indian middle order, and now he is gone. The other Mitchell – Marsh this time – too flew home with an injured shoulder, leaving a gaping all-round hole in the middle order. He may not have done much in the series, but he lent stability to the young team, and was perhaps an innings away from coming good with the bat, if not with the ball. His absence has led Australia to make two unconventional selections, both of who many agree with.
Marcus Stoinis and Pat Cummins have been called up for Ranchi. Stoinis many will remember from his recent ODI burst against New Zealand – a swashbuckling losing-cause 146 out of nowhere. He is new to international cricket, but was part of the Kings XI team as an overseas T20 player last year. Stoinis will compete with Glenn Maxwell for the No. 6 spot – and has an advantage because of his bowling. Maxwell hasn’t been up to it in first-class cricket recently, but has been part of the squad and the international scene in India far more than Stoinis. He is also the new captain of Kings XI, and his teammate this year in the league.
Pat Cummins, though, is the one everyone will be interested in. The ‘youngster’ back in 2011 tore through South Africa in the sole Test he played at the Wanderers, taking a 6-for in the second innings (the youngest Aussie ever to take a 5-for), setting the tone for one of Australia’s bravest overseas victories in their history. Recurring injuries and a failing body meant that he hasn’t played a Test since then. He can bowl up to 150 kmph, with a leap and a bounce at the crease, and will present a Test for the Indians – who aren’t too experienced against him. He was part of the Kolkata Knight Riders squad for a while, but didn’t play much cricket. Cummins will most likely directly replace Starc, unless Jackson Bird is given a go before him.
India doesn’t look like it’ll make changes – except for perhaps Vijay being back for Abhinav Mukund at the top. Karun Nair will keep his place, given that Rohit Sharma hasn’t been picked for the final two Tests despite his recovery from surgery. His two domestic innings for Mumbai didn’t result in many runs, though coach Anil Kumble’s rule of incoming players proving their fitness through 4-day first-class matches applied to his comeback. Same for Mohammad Shami, India’s lead pace bowler, who wasn’t picked, and will have to wait a while before he wears the whites again. Both of them could be first-choice picks in India’s next Test series – unless Nair makes up for his folly at Bangalore with some good innings, and unless Ishant Sharma stops being ‘unlucky’ to pick up a few more wickets.
TOP OF THE CROP
For the first time in the history of the rankings, two spin bowlers occupy the top spot. R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are both No. 1 currently, after their respective 6-fors in both the innings in Bangalore. After an underwhelming Pune Test, they bounced back with skill and patience, proving yet again that this duo remains the ultimate test for overseas batsmen to master in these conditions. They will take the field as true ‘spin twins’ on Thursday – determined to continue their dominance against batsmen like David Warner and Shaun Marsh. Ashwin has dismissed Warner nine times, and has gotten under his skin, while Jadeja is known to have an edge over Steven Smith.
Possible XI for both teams:
INDIA: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Karun Nair, Wriddhiman Saha, R. Ashwin, R. Jadeja, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma
AUSTRALIA: Matt Renshaw, David Warner, Steve Smith, Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Stoinis, Matthew Wade, Pat Cummins, Steve O’Keefe, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
India are favorites – with Kohli yet to hit form. The slow nature of the pitch, though, could compel him to change his stance and square up against the spinners ahead of the crease. But his four failures won’t be playing on his mind as much as his decision-making with the DRS. Either way, he will be pumped, and determined not to lose India their first home series against Australia since 2004. He has won 16 out of his first 25 Tests as captain – already third behind Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting after the same number of Tests.