Potentially fit Ravichandran Ashwin could fill hole left by Rohit Sharma: Sydney Test talking points
India will be under pressure in the final Test, starting on Thursday, as a historic series win in Australia beckons
Back in January 2004, Australia and India headed to Sydney for the final Test of their four-match series with the scoreline reading 1-1.
This was the closest India had come, since the 1977/78 tour, to a first ever series victory Down Under. But, despite dominating the proceedings for a majority of the five days, the game ended in a pulsating draw.
Honours were split, but India came away realising they had missed a huge opportunity to make history.
Fifteen years later, Virat Kohli’s men arrive in Sydney for the fourth and final Test in a stronger position: they lead the series 2-1 and cannot lose it even if they are beaten there. They have already retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy by virtue of their home series win in 2016/17.
Yet, the Indians might be feeling the pressure. As ruthless as this side may be, the anticipation that they could finally break a decades-long duck cannot be easy to handle.
Desperate to win the game, Tim Paine’s Australians will be expected to come hard at their opponents; they have no other choice. They bounced back from defeat in Adelaide to win the second Test at Perth, so precedence will likely give them confidence.
Here are a few talking points ahead of the Sydney Test, which starts on Thursday.
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Rohit Sharma will not play in Sydney having flown home to be with his wife and newborn. He will be missed, given that he scored 63 in the first innings of the third Test at Melbourne, which India won by 137 runs last week.
The question is who to pick in his place. It depends on the pitch, which Paine reportedly pointed out looks dry given the hot weather conditions in the city at the moment.
If that is indeed the case, it might be worth picking an additional spinner (more on this later). The other option is to include seam-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya who has returned to the squad after nursing a bad back.
Pandya may not yet be at the level of England’s Ben Stokes, but he does bring the X-factor to the side. When on song, he can change the course of a game with both bat and ball. Remember last year’s Trent Bridge Test where his 5-28 triggered an England batting collapse and eventually victory for India?
There is a risk in throwing him into the mix of things when he has not played a lot of cricket in recent times. But do not count him out.
Ashwin seeks turn of fortunes
For the best part of the past seven to eight years, Ravichandran Ashwin has been India’s No 1 spinner. He is even their strike bowler in home Tests.
The 32-year-old off-spinner, who is peaking in his career, has begun to make up for a lukewarm overseas record. He performed well in England last year. He also had a good start to this series, taking six wickets in the first Test at Adelaide before picking up an abdominal strain and missing the Perth and Melbourne games.
Regardless of whether the conditions at the SCG favour spin or not, he will want to play a part in a historic India win; more so if spin is a factor.
Can he be a man-for-man replacement for Rohit? On batting talent alone, probably not. And yet, Ashwin has a better record with the bat in the long format than does his good friend. Ashwin has scored more runs, more hundreds and more fifties than has Rohit.
If fit, India could go in with five bowlers, including three seamers (Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami) and two spinners (Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja).
Keepers finders of ‘spirit of cricket’
Rishabh Pant and Tim Paine have engaged in banter throughout the series, with Paine at one point facetiously suggesting from behind the stumps that Pant move to Hobart to play for his Hurricanes side in the ongoing Big Bash League. He also asked Pant if he would babysit his children while he took his wife to the movies. All in jest, of course.
Pant, like Paine a chirpy wicketkeeper, needled his Australian counterpart when he came out to bat, calling him “a temporary captain” on more than one occasion.
But when the teams met at the Australian prime minister’s residence on New Year’s Day, Pant posed for a picture with Paine’s wife and children, which predictably got a lot of play on social media.
The lesson here for the other players is that a bit of banter in the heat of battle can possibly blossom into a friendship one day. And that’s how cricket should be played.
Be leery of Labuschagne
India will do well to be wary of Australia all-rounder Marnus Labuschagne.
A middle-order batsman who bowls decent leg breaks and performed well with the ball against Pakistan in the UAE Test series, he might actually get picked in the XI – possibly in place of out-of-form opener Aaron Finch.
India struggled against off-spinner Nathan Lyon in Perth, so imagine the challenge an Australian attack that includes five good bowlers could pose to India’s batsmen.
Little-known Labuschagne could well be the man lending balance this Australian line-up very much needs.
Predictions: India to end wait to win Test series down under
Updated: January 1, 2019 10:05 PM