After weeks of intense rivalry and riveting cricket between two of the top-ranked Test teams in the world, the time has finally come for us to brace for the big decider, that begins on Saturday in Dharamsala.
The ongoing edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy heads into the fourth and final Test at the picturesque HPCA Stadium nestled in the Himalayas, and promises to be another cracker of a contest with the series on a knife-edge at 1-1. There has been plenty of bad blood between the two sides, especially between Virat Kohli and Steve Smith, leader of the Indian and Australian teams respectively, and one can say the cricketing relations between the two countries has reached an all-time low.
Such off-field tensions between two teams often lead to intense on-field action, something that has been on display so far in the series, and the trend is expected to carry over to the Dharamsala pitch as well. With the match also signalling the end of what turned out to be a rather long stretch of matches on home soil, the Indians would like to sign off on a winning note.
Despite the Indians witnessing several individual contributions of worth from their camp, especially Cheteshwar Pujara (and his record-breaking double-century in Ranchi), the focus somehow manages to shift back to captain Kohli. This time, he has been in the news mainly for negative reasons.
Aside from his clashes with the Australian media, which included a comparison of him with US President Donald Trump, he seems to have found himself in a rut, producing one low score after another. A total of 46 runs from five innings at a miserable average of 9.20 gives his critics enough fodder to take shots at him for a few months now. Given the hunger for runs that he had displayed over the last one year — which in turn led to an incredible journey with the bat that included four double-centuries — one can never rule the possibility of him redeeming himself with a big score.
There are however, doubts over Kohli's fitness for Dharamsala, having injured his right shoulder in Ranchi while attempting to pull off an acrobatic dive near the boundary rope. Having played the Test through pain on the affected area, Kohli skipped batting practice in Dharamsala in order to give his shoulder some rest, with Shreyas Iyer earning a call-up to the squad as a cover for the batting superstar.
The Mumbai batsman had earlier struck an unbeaten 202 in the only warm-up of the tour, and has been granted the chance following a terrific domestic season.
There was a brief discussion on the inclusion of Mohammed Shami into the Indian squad for the final Test, which would have been a fantastic addition for the hosts keeping in mind the pace-friendly conditions at Dharamsala. The talismanic Indian pacer had produced fine spells against New Zealand, especially in the second Test at the Eden Gardens, in which he partnered with Bhuvneshwar Kumar at the start of the innings.
However, latest reports have refuted talks of his participation in the series decider, with a source mentioning that Shami was merely present with the team in Ranchi.
The other big call that the Indians will have to take is that of including an extra bowler — preferrably a pacer — in their XI in place of someone like Karun Nair, who hasn't been in the best of form following his triple-century against England in Chennai. While the five-bowler theory has worked for Kohli and Co well in the past, it is a call that the team think-tank will likely delay till the final toss of the series.
If the visitors lost out on a bit of momentum following the 75-run defeat in Bengaluru, the draw that they eked out for themselves in Ranchi, thanks mainly to the efforts of Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb, would have restored some of that confidence. For a team that was dismissed by several experts on the sport ahead of the tour, with leading Indian names such as Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh predicting a 4-0 whitewash in favour of India, Smith and Co have done a tremendous job in shutting their critics up.
So much so, the Austrlians are on the verge of pulling off a series win, one that should be termed 'historic' in the years to come given the dominance of the Indians in their own backyard. Lest we forget, Australia down in the dumps a few months ago after a whitewash in Sri Lanka and a home series loss to South Africa.
Having lost out on the services of two Mitchells — Starc and Marsh — ahead of the Ranchi Test, their replacements in Glenn Maxwell and Pat Cummins made the most of the opportunity granted to them. While the former scored a century to shatter the notion of him being nothing more than a limited-overs slogger, Cummins grabbed four wickets in his first Test appearance since his debut back in 2011.
Both are expected to retain their places in the side, with the team management having announced the likelihood of Steve O'Keefe getting replaced by Jackson Bird for the upcoming match. One does feel for O"Keefe, whose brilliance in Pune helped Australia script a mammoth 333-run victory. However, the fact that he could not get a single wicket on a batting-friendly Ranchi pitch despite bowling 77 overs led to the notion that he primarily needs assistance from the pitch in order to produce any magic. For Bird, whose only exposure in the tour so far was in the warm-up, his patience has finally earned him a much-awaited break in the subcontinent.
Much like Kohli, opening batsman David Warner has been a major disappointment this series. A lot was expected from the left-handed opener after the tremendous run of form that he had displayed in its build-up. Yet, his flaws have been to an extent covered up by the flamboyance and grit of young Queenslander and fellow opener Matt Renshaw, who can safely be termed as the find of the season for the Australians. Like Kohli, Warner will be eager to sign off from the tour on a happy note with a decent score on the board, and maybe not get dismissed by either Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja in the two chances that he will be getting in this match.
It would be a tad unrealistic to expect things to not heat up between the two sides in the cool climate of Dharamsala, but one does hope that the two teams put their personal differences aside for at least one match, and give their absolute best on the field. While they cannot change what has already happened in the tour so far, they certainly can ensure that the series ends on a good, but competitive, note. Let's not forget, most of the warring players from both camps will eventually be playing alongside each other in the Indian Premier League that begins barely a week after the end of this tour.
India: Virat Kohli (c), 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 (c), 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.