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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

Virat Kohli's antics, Ravindra Jadeja's fitness and Mayank Agarwal's chance: Boxing Day Test talking points

As Australia take on India in the third Test, starting in Melbourne on Wednesday, the tourists are grappling with a few issues even as the series is level at 1-1

Australia captain Tim Paine, left and Indian counterpart Virat Kohli are all smiles here, but that was not the case during the Perth Test last week. EPA
Australia captain Tim Paine, left and Indian counterpart Virat Kohli are all smiles here, but that was not the case during the Perth Test last week. EPA

As Australia and India prepare for the third Test, which gets under way in Melbourne on Wednesday, it has to be said what a cracking four-match series this has been so far.

India won a topsy-turvy first Test at Adelaide by 31 runs, and even though Australia clinched the second game in Perth by 146 runs, the tourists had their moments on the first two days.

The contest between bat and ball has been good, too, with Australia’s first-innings score of 326 in Perth being the highest team total across eight innings.

No one batsman or bowler has dominated proceedings either.

Chart-topping Australia off-spinner Nathan Lyon has five wickets more to his name than the next most successful bowlers in the series – India pacemen Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami have 11 each. But that could well change as all the bowlers have chipped in.

... and what about the fielding!

Also intriguing is the race to be the best batsman.

A century and half-century in Adelaide have set up India’s Cheteshwar Pujara for potentially more match-winning performances, even though he had a quiet game in Perth. His captain Virat Kohli scored a hundred there, but he has yet to dominate the run charts. Meanwhile, Travis Head’s middle-order contributions have given the hosts a fighting chance.

But while it has been a good series overall, not all is well in the Indian camp. A few issues need sorting out before Boxing Day. And without timely interventions, Kohli’s men could miss out on their best chance of winning a first Test series down under.

Rohit Sharma, left, and Ravindra Jadeja have had to deal with injury problems in Australia this year. Daniel Kalisz / Getty Images
Rohit Sharma, left, and Ravindra Jadeja have had to deal with injury problems in Australia this year. Daniel Kalisz / Getty Images

Injuries galore

In one sense Ravi Shastri is right to feel pleased that the series is level at 1-1. After all, India’s coach has had to wrestle with a host of injury problems.

Seam-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya has returned to the side but not before missing most of the summer, leading up to the first two Tests in Australia, with a bad back. Promising opening batsman Prithvi Shaw injured his ankle in a warm-up game before the first Test and has been ruled out of the series. Middle-order batsman Rohit Sharma had a “jarred back” after flopping in Adelaide.

Also, not all is well with India’s two best slow bowlers.

Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who took six wickets in Adelaide, did not play in Perth because of an abdominal strain and remains a doubt for Melbourne. Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja, it was revealed on Sunday, had been carrying a shoulder injury to Australia. But he has been declared fit for Boxing Day.

The good thing is India have depth in the squad.

Kuldeep Yadav could still come in as the lone specialist spinner if India decide not to risk playing Ashwin or Jadeja. The young and upcoming Hanuma Vihari deserves to be persisted with in the middle order even if Rohit is cleared to play.

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India captain Virat Kohli, right, and coach Ravi Shastri, centre, have failed in effectively communicating with the media. Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo
India captain Virat Kohli, right, and coach Ravi Shastri, centre, have failed in effectively communicating with the media. Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo

Communication breakdown?

The Indian team management claims to be bold and upfront with the media. But the evidence so far points to the contrary, with Ashwin’s selection for the Southampton Test during India’s tour of England this year being a case in point.

The spinner was picked for the game even though he was not a 100 per cent fit, and he got criticised for his poor performance. When confronted about Ashwin's struggles, both Shastri and vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane denied any fitness-related issues – only for Kohli to confirm the same days later.

Fast forward to last week's Perth Test when India were dealt with two injury blows ahead of the game, with both Ashwin and Rohit being ruled out. The management picked a fourth fast bowler – Umesh Yadav – in Ashwin's place when it was evident they needed a specialist spinner in the XI.

When the captain was quizzed about his decision, he revealed he would have gone with four pacemen even if Ashwin had been declared fit before the game.

But, shortly after it was assumed the management had got their combination wrong, came Shastri’s revelation that Jadeja had been in their plans for Perth as a slow-bowling back-up option to Ashwin, but for the fact he had been only 80 per cent fit.

Shastri’s admission that a player had been selected for the tour despite not being fully fit was baffling. But in the process, he also contradicted Kohli’s statement about their determination to play four seamers at Perth.

Lokesh Rahul, left, and Murali Vijay struggled in the first two Tests of the ongoing series in Australia. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo
Lokesh Rahul, left, and Murali Vijay struggled in the first two Tests of the ongoing series in Australia. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo

Open to new options

With openers Lokesh Rahul and Murali Vijay having scored just 97 runs between them over four innings, the management has two conventional options in front of it.

It could persist with the incumbents, which is not the worst idea given that both batsmen have the quality and experience to bounce back. They also know how to score runs in Australia, having done that during the 2014/15 tour.

Or, it could hand Mayank Agarwal his first cap now that he has been flown in as Shaw’s replacement.

Agarwal has been one of the most consistent batsmen across formats in India’s domestic circuit over the past year. He has also been a regular with the India A team, having performed reasonably well on their tour of New Zealand recently.

The aggressive right-hander has been unfairly ignored in the past despite putting in significant contributions in first-class cricket. Would it not be more sensible to pick a player high on confidence and ambition, than to persist with two openers who are batting to save their careers?

There is a suggestion Agarwal may not succeed against Australia's mighty bowling attack. But we do not know that. What we do know for sure, though, is Rahul and Vijay have not kicked on.

Australia captain Tim Paine, left, did not get on with Indian counterpart Virat Kohli during the Perth Test. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images
Australia captain Tim Paine, left, did not get on with Indian counterpart Virat Kohli during the Perth Test. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

Kohli might keep it up

As has been his wont in recent times, Kohli once again found a way to polarise opinion both at home and abroad with his on-field behaviour in Perth.

His confrontation with opposite number Tim Paine, which nearly got physical, garnered mixed reviews in India. “Virat K is not only the world’s best batsman but also the world’s worst behaved player,” veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah wrote on Facebook, a comment that got plenty of support but drew lots more criticism.

Kohli’s cold vibe when he shook hands with Paine after the game did not win him any favours. Nor did the allegation he called Paine “a part-time captain” – a charge the Indian management vehemently denied.

The saving grace – at least in the eyes of many Indian supporters – was that Kohli was dishing it out to the Australians, whose on-field behaviour has done remarkable damage to their reputations in recent times.

It is why even those Indians who do not particularly care for Kohli are saying, “keep it up, captain”.

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Read more:

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First Test takeaways: Priceless Pujara and agony for Paine

Predictions: India to end wait to win Test series down under

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Gallery: Best bowlers down under over the past 70 years

Gallery: Memorable Test matches over the past 70 years

Updated: December 24, 2018 09:42 AM

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