Team India’s selections need to be based on form, facts and ‘plain’ honesty.
Having been completely outplayed in the second Test, India will need to bring their A-game to the park when the third Test against Australia begins in Melbourne on Wednesday, 26 December. For only the second time in their history, India took a lead in a Test series in Australia by winning the opening game, but the hosts stormed back by playing some top-class cricket on a spicy deck at the Perth Stadium.
Now, Team India – who are doing so many things right, and an equal number of things wrong – need several things to go their way in their bid to take an unassailable lead in the four-match series.
Crying Out for Honesty
First up, all members of the touring party – players, coaches and support staff – need to be absolutely honest in what they do; players need to be honest about injuries, the physios need to be honest about assessment of injuries and communicate facts to the team management, and the coaches and captain need to have a serious discussion about the surface in front of them and in consensus pick a side they think has the best chance of winning a Test match.
Reputations, relationships or sentiment should have no influence on any of the decision-making with regards to picking the team. Form, facts and honesty, and only these factors, should guide the selection.
For India to once again get into the lead, they need to get their combination spot on. There is no more room for selection gaffes; one more disastrous selection – made by all those individuals who are actually at the venue and have the opportunity to assess the pitch and conditions – and India's 'best chance' of winning a Test series in Australia could vanish into thin air.
The team management has three key selection questions to answer.
- Who will be the openers? Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, and not to forget Parthiv Patel – all stand a chance.
- Is there room for one or two spinners in the XI? If one spinner, then who is the 'fully fit' spinner, who is best equipped to pick wickets on that surface? Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – both of whom reported mysterious injuries – might be available for selection, while Kuldeep Yadav – who has only been seen carrying the drinks or separating two teammates engaged in aggressive exchanges – stands an outside chance.
- Who among Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya and Hanuma Vihari gets to bat at number six?
Facts, form and conditions being the overriding factors, my choices would be Mayank Agarwal to partner Murali Vijay at the top, Kuldeep Yadav as the specialist spinner, and Vihari at number six.
The weather in Melbourne is expected to be extremely warm over the next few days – the mercury is expected to test the 35-degrees Celsius mark over the course of the Test match – and that could tempt the Indian team management to consider playing two spinners in the XI. Ashwin and Jadeja both had a bowl in the nets two days from the Test match, and one couldn’t sense any discomfort in their body language.
India at MCG: Winless in 37 Years
Over several previous tours of Australia, India haven't had too many fond memories of playing at the Melbourne Cricket Ground or playing the Boxing Day Test, a popular fixture in the country's sports calendar. In 12 visits to the 'G', Team India has prevailed only twice – the last of those wins was in February 1981, when an injured Kapil Dev took 5-28 to help defend a target of 143. Since that win, India have ended up on the losing side on five occasions and drawn two other Test matches.
Australia, meanwhile, have won more Test matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground than any team has won at a particular Test venue.
Indian cricket fans will be hoping that Virat Kohli and company can extend the 'lucky third Test' streak by one. On each of their last five overseas tours, Team India has emerged victorious in the third Test.
Finch Available for Australia
Where Australia are concerned, they will be feeling confident because of the hard-fought win in Perth, and also because of all the confusion one has come to hear about in the Indian camp and the pressure on the Indian players. The captain, Virat Kohli, particularly has been under the microscope – and will continue to be – for his batting and his on-field antics.
The hosts will be delighted that Aaron Finch is available for selection. The only change one can expect in the Australian XI is Mitchell Marsh replacing Peter Handscomb. It is a fact that both players aren't scoring runs, but the axe could fall on the latter only because Marsh is able to contribute with the ball too.
The surface at the Melbourne Cricket Ground came under scrutiny after being too batsmen-friendly in the last few Test matches; teams batting first scored more than 440 in three of the last four Tests at the venue, and two of those Tests ended in a draw. However, most-recently, the surfaces at the MCG have been more challenging; if scores from the Sheffield Shield are any indication, there will be some assistance for bowlers – at least early on, before the surface eases. The curator has said he expects the pitch to offer pace and bounce.
There’s plenty for the Indian team management to ponder in the hours before Virat Kohli walks out for the toss on Boxing Day. Can Kohli, Ravi Shastri and MSK Prasad get this one right?
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