The first question that sprung to mind on seeing the itinerary of the India vs Australia Tests was, were the venues chosen keeping the best interests of Indian cricket or BCCI’s erstwhile office-bearers in mind?
Ranchi, where the third Test was played and Dharamsala, where the fourth and deciding Test starts on Saturday, would never have been identified as Test venues against a team like Australia, but for the handiwork of Amitabh Choudhary and Anurag Thakur, the strongmen of Jharkhand Cricket Association and Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association respectively.
Inadvertently, the BCCI, by choosing Dharamsala for the decider, have handed over advantage to Australia.
Picturesque as it might be, the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium high up there in the hills is not the ideal venue for India’s Test team. The ground is small, more suited to the demands of T20 and ODI cricket rather than the longer format of the game.
To begin with, the boundaries are not in excess of 75 yards. In fact, they could be close to 65, rather than 75 yards and the high altitude of 1,320 metres above sea level actually makes the ball travel faster and further than at say, Chennai or Mumbai. Thus it can’t really be an ideal playing field for spinners.
The bigger concern is the small stands all around the ground, save for the pavilion block. They are so tiny that they do not check the winds and hence wind, and consequently swing bowling, could be a huge factor in the morning and evening of each day’s play. This will be to the advantage of Australia, rather than India.
Their batsmen are more adept at handling swing bowling, rather than spin, unlike the Indian batsmen.
Having said that, focus would be on the Indian team’s choice of playing eleven.
In the first instance, would they opt for five bowlers, especially given that skipper Virat Kohli is not in the best of batting form and a real burst of swing and pace bowling in favourable conditions from Pat Cummins and John Hazlewood could open up the Indian top order?
Additionally, there is a genuine fear that Kohli would not recover from his shoulder injury. This would not only rob the team of its best batsman but also a skipper who brings tremendous energy, aggression and positivity into play.
The good news though is that all the batsmen – Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and to a lesser extent Ajinkya Rahane – have hit the stride. Karun Nair is young, talented and due for another big score anytime now. Even the all rounders, Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja have got amongst the runs. Thus, even if Kohli does not play, the batting looks impressive enough, at least on paper.
It is the choice of bowlers that will attract maximum attention. Mohammed Shami, probably the best fast bowler in India at the moment, was summoned to the nets after his warm up game in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
He has recovered from injury and if the think tank feels he is fit enough to withstand the rigours of five-day cricket, he will certainly play. His pace and wrist position while bowling are such that he would be an asset on the wind-swept hills of Dharamsala.
Shami, along with the pacy Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma, would form the ideal three-pronged pace attack. They will be a handful for the Aussie batsmen for sure. If Shami is not fit enough to play, his replacement would clearly be Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a wily swing and seam bowler.
Obviously Jadeja is indispensable; especially after he got that quickfire 50 in the previous Test at Ranchi. It added a new dimension to a player who has already carved a name for himself with his incisive left-arm spin bowling right through the season.
Ravichandran Ashwin is, as usual, the first choice spinner. He has stamped his authority over the Aussies, particular David Warner, in no uncertain terms. It would be nice if he could be as successful with the bat against these opponents.
Thus, in all probability, we would have a six-five team. Six batsmen, with Saha coming in at number the six and five bowlers, with Ashwin and Jadeja contributing substantially with the bat. Three pacers would be absolutely essential given the small size of the ground and the wind factor.
If skipper Kohli is fit Karun Nair would have to sit out.
Whatever the choice of playing eleven, there is much to play for in this Test. The Aussies have not done well in India for ever so long and it is important and desirable to keep it that way for some more time to come.