"Can't wait for Ranchi. We need to push that momentum further. The team is not going to look back now." Virat Kohli's words after India's series-levelling win over Australia in Bengaluru summed up the team's mindset. Having been condemned to a 333-run defeat in Pune in the first Test of four-match series against Australia, India reinvigorated themselves with a morale-boosting win in the second rubber.
Heading into the crucial third Test in Ranchi, the home side are in familiar territory. They have their opponents on the mat and are in a position to go for the kill. Australia's new-found confidence in subcontinent conditions appeared to have waned in the second innings of the Bengaluru Test. They didn't just fold up for 112 in 35.4 overs, but their spinners who had contributed to 26 out of the 30 Indian wickets in the previous three innings, managed just two in the second innings in the Bengaluru.
The Cheteshwar Pujara-Ajinkya Rahane partnership in the second innings helped to restore the hosts' confidence after the mauling in Pune. The rapid series of events thereafter meant India had successfully turned the tables on the visitors.
Kohli's men now appear to be in their groove, just like they were for the majority of this home season, looking to attack and most importantly looking to dominate.
Their bid to resume domination would be aided by injuries to Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Marsh who have been ruled out of the series. Starc who spearheaded the visitors' pace attack in the first two Tests could prove to be a major blow with replacement Pat Cummins making a return to the longest format after six years. Jackson Bird is the other option available for Steve Smith, but it is believed that Cummins would get the nod.
In the batting department, Glenn Maxwell is tipped to replace the injured Marsh ahead of Marcus Stoinis and Ashton Agar, with his off-spin bowling providing Australia with an added option.
Murali Vijay who has been in good form off late has recovered from his injury and is expected to return to the side in place of Abhinav Mukund who failed to make an impact in Bengaluru.
After the match referee gave 'poor' and 'below average' ratings to the pitches in Pune and Bengaluru respectively, a lot of of the pre-match focus has been on the wicket in Ranchi. The curiosity surrounding the pitch was fuelled with former Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni paying a visit to the JSCA stadium and having a discussion with curator SB Singh.
According to sources, Dhoni was sent tapes of the Australian bowlers from the first two Tests and asked to give the curator his inputs regarding the way the pitch was to be prepared.
However, Singh denied all such claims and suggested that the pitch will last for five days unlike the wickets in the previous two Test matches. According to a report in Cricbuzz, the curator said that they have used black soil while preparing the wicket to prevent the pitch from crumbling.
— Vishaal Loganathan (@vishaal_CB) March 14, 2017
The pitch appears darker than usual and Smith made a point to comment on the nature of the wicket on offer ahead of the game. "I’ve never seen a wicket that’s looked quite as dark as that one is," Smith was quoted as saying by the Cricket Australia website.
"I don’t think there will be a great deal of bounce, I think it will shoot quite low. And I think it will take a reasonable amount of spin as the game goes on. But I’m actually not sure how it’s going to play, it’s hard to get a gauge on this one. I daresay there won’t be much bounce but I’ve been wrong with wickets before," quipped the Australian captain.
If the pitch behaves the way Smith expects it to, which is in sync with what is widely expected, then it will be interesting to see what teams both captains choose to go with.
While the Australians have been forced into changes, the team with which India opt to take to the field in Ranchi has emerged as a topic of great interest. The hosts used the five-bowlers strategy that served them well throughout the home season until the debacle in Pune. The heavy loss prompted Kohli to go with an extra batsmen in the second Test in Bengaluru.
A change in ploy where Kohli went for the added batsmen did work in his favour as India drew level in the series. So it will be interesting to know if he sticks to the winning combination or goes back to the attacking five-bowlers plan that has worked so well for him in the past.
With the wicket in Ranchi expected to be on the slower side and take plenty of turn as the game progresses, Kohli could be tempted to restore all-rounder Jayant Yadav to the side at the expense of Karun Nair who didn't fare too well in Bengaluru.
The decision will obviously depend on Kohli's reading of the pitch, but whatever he opts to do in terms of team selection in the Ranchi Test could help us learn a bit more about his captaincy.
A slow turner would suit the home side better with the ability of the Indian spinners in such conditions well-proven in the past. On the other hand, Nathan Lyon who registered career-best figures of 8/50 in the first innings in Bengaluru might struggle to be as effective with the predicted lack of bounce in Ranchi. He will have to make adjustments and add variations to his bowling if he has to be successful on such a wicket.
This is where Ravindra Jadeja, who bowls a similar stump-to-stump line like Lyon would prove hard to negotiate thanks to the subtle variations in pace he produces. Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma who bowled tremendously well in the two Test matches could further torment the Australians with their consistent lines and disciplined bowling, if the odd deliveries start to keep low.
The visitors who seemed to have the momentum to steamroll India in their own backyard have been pegged back after the defeat in Bengaluru. They must now restart and once again build the steam to put the hosts on the back foot. The fact that a victory in Ranchi would help them retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy could serve as a big motivating factor, and the visitors must surprise the Indians with their approach in the third Test.
Smith could also look at Mitchell Swepson to provide that surprise element, just like Steve O'Keefe did in the first Test. Former Australian captain Steve Waugh has hailed the leg-spinner as the visitors' secret weapon and the visitors could be tempted to take a gamble and play an extra spinner especially with Starc ruled out.
"The change from the first Test to the second Test was probably the initial shock. They certainly came out a little harder on day three (at Bengaluru), but we expect them to come hard," Australian wicket-keeper Mathew Wade said after the Bengaluru Test.
The visitors would look to come out in Ranchi with the same approach and shock India a bit. They must ensure they make the hosts feel they are in a contest, or risk being swept away.
India, on the other hand, would again go hard at their opponents and try and put an end to the Australians' resilience that has been on show in this series. Kohli's men have the Border-Gavaskar Trophy within striking distance, and one can expect them to go all out. India have been there and done that in the home season so far, but it will be interesting to see if they can steamroll this gritty Australian side in the same way as they demolished England and New Zealand.
The Ranchi Test will have all the answers!
India: Virat Kohli (capt), Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund.
Australia: Steve Smith (capt), David Warner, Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steve O`Keefe, Matthew Renshaw, Pat Cummins, Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade.