A day before the MCG Test, Ravichandran Ashwin dragged Hanuma Vihari to the middle of the pitch and imparted him lessons on the lengths he needed to hit on the surface. Like a studious apprentice, Vihari kept nodding his head, without uttering a word.
Later, in different phases of the match, Ashwin accompanied the drinks-man during the breaks and seemed to whisper something in Ravindra Jadeja’s ears. The restlessness of missing two Tests due to injury, when he seemed to have decoded the secret of bowling in Australia, was palpable, but there was no lack of involvement. In the past, he would have buried his head in chunky books or wrapped those heavy headphones around himself.
The restlessness could end in Sydney, provided he clears the fitness test. There were ample signs and speculation that he would. Even the day before the MCG test, he was bowling fluently in the nets, completing his action without any visible sign of discomfort. A more telltale sign was that he wasn't looking melancholic, as he was before the Perth Test, when he was rather moody. Later, both bowling coach Bharat Arun and captain Virat Kohli averred that he should win the fitness race in time for the Sydney Test, where the pitch has historically assisted spinners.
Much to Kohli's relief, he needn't embrace any radical overhaul, as Rohit Sharma's return home has opened up a spot. Had he not flown home, there could have been a dilemma on where to accommodate him, especially after his first-innings runs and the way he kept chipping away with ideas, most notably to Jasprit Bumrah before he hatched arguably the ball of the year. Moreover, Kohli has generally preferred stacking six batsmen in this series. Ashwin is not a like-for-like replacement, but there are mitigating arguments that he would be.
The pitch at the SCG could be one reason. Word has already spread that it could assist turn, much to the chagrin of Australian skipper Tim Paine. After the MCG defeat, he critiqued the nature of some of the pitches before taking a dig at the one that awaits them in Sydney. "We've rolled up some wickets here in Australia that have taken away from our strengths, which is pace and bounce. I played on it about three or four weeks ago and it spun a little bit. We're hearing it's probably going to be a little bit drier than even that. I'm sure India will be really looking forward to it."
Why dry pitch can suit spinners & pacers
While Virat Kohli & Co will return home with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the bigger goal of sealing an overseas series triumph remains to be achieved. The SCG pitch has sported a dry look of late, which would please the visitors no end, even if it provides them with a dilemma on the team selection for the final Test. A dry surface is normally expected to assist spinners, from the rough as well as the 'good' parts of the pitch, and India are well-stocked in that department with Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav available for selection. Being used to bowling on such tracks back home, they should adjust to the requirements readily. Ashwin played a big role on a dry surface in Adelaide, and Jadeja's accuracy and variations can be useful on any pitch. But a dry surface will also be amenable to reverse swing, and the Indian pace troika of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami are more than adept in that art. Coupled with their pace and other attributes, it will make them even tougher to handle. The choice between playing three pacers or two spinners will go a long way in determining whether the Indian dream is realised.
Traditionally, the SCG surface has a reputation of assisting spinners, the dry surface deteriorating as the match progresses. It's where Anil Kumble registered his best bowling outside Asia (8/141 in 2004), the only Australian pitch where spinners helm the bowling charts. Shane Warne and his unfortunate contemporary Stuart MacGill wheedled out 65 and 53 wickets apiece, more than even Glenn McGrath. Nowhere have they played together as frequently as in Sydney, triggering subcontinental sides (and even England, who played both Moeen Ali and Mason Crane in the last Ashes Test here) to invariably pack their sides with two spinners. It's also where half of the middling spinners in the Warne-Lyon flux era accumulated most of their games too. Another sign was Australia SOS-ing leg-spinning all-rounder Marcus Labuschagne. That only a few of the subcontinental spinners have influenced matches here is a different story altogether.
But the fact that the SCG assists spinners more than any other surface in the country is beyond doubt. Though it's spin-friendliness has reduced over the years - none of the Sheffield Shield matches here have produced a result this year - the venue has seen a higher percentage of wickets (28) falling to spinners than any other ground. Even during the last Test here, Nathan Lyon took four wickets in the second England innings. So Ashwin's comeback lurks large, though not entirely guaranteed.
Not that the team management has been prone to making left-field, bordering on bizarre, changes, but they might also be tempted by Hardik Pandya, so as to relieve the inexorable burden from the pace-bowling triumvirate. More so as Pandya's cutters could be quite handy on this surface. Moreover, Ashwin's batting has tapered off in the last few months, maybe the injuries are taking a toll.
The only other possibility, however hazy it might sound, is Vihari being reinstalled in the middle order and one of the discarded openers, KL Rahul or Murai Vijay, being recalled. A rather defensive move, though even a draw would suffice for claiming the series. Then, Kohli was mighty impressed with Vihari's poise as an opener. Though he made only 21 runs across the two innings, he soaked up 111 balls. "You might not think of Vihari's contribution as being significant to this game. But if you look at the fact that he played out 15 overs of the new ball with Mayank (Agarwal) in the first innings, it allowed Pujara and me to bat, and bat, and bat. I mean we were not walking in under pressure, we were walking in thinking that we can build a partnership," reflected Kohli.
Be what it may, Vihari's bowing is at best utilitarian, a typical filler, someone who can't even in his wildest dreams fill Ashwin's boots. If India have their priorities set on winning the Test, the Ashwin-Jadeja combination is the proactive choice. The pair can be lethal. Jadeja has metamorphosed from a fourth-fifth day subcontinental spinner to a master of subtleties a long time ago. While he's deadliest on a wearing surface, the hint of a rough raking up the destroyer in him, he can prise out wickets on docile tracks too with his angles, pace-variation and hit-the-same spot persistence. Ashwin, meanwhile, has reached such a stage that he no longer needs the benevolence of the surface to wreak havoc. He's a more nuanced craftsman, less worried about pitch or conditions, or rather someone who has mastered the art of utilising the conditions. Both of them bowling in tandem could be a double whammy for the Australians, in a way could be like facing Warne and MacGill.