Following the debacle at Adelaide, India brought in four replacements for the Melbourne Test match, two of them debutants. One, Mohammed Siraj, pinged Marnus Labuschagne on the helmet before getting his wicket, bowled his heart out, flung himself on the outfield, and stepped in when Umesh Yadav hobbled out of the ground. His match figures stand at 27.3-5-63-3 and two catches.
Shubman Gill’s first key contribution was a low diving catch at leg gully to send back Labuschagne. The first over he faced in Test cricket, from Pat Cummins, would rank among the most hostile overs of the year. He was dropped by Steven Smith, but made the most of that. He played his shots, a couple of them exquisite, and only two Indians got more than his 65-ball 45.
Ravindra Jadeja’s match figures stand at 15.3-4-40-3 and 57, and a catch where he miraculously managed to avoid trampling Gill. His steadily improving batting skills has earned him the No 7 spot; he will not be a misfit at No 6, either.
The glovework of Rishabh Pant has been far from tidy. The dropped catch and ten byes do not tell the story. But, to be fair, India were aware of the fact that they were compromising on wicketkeeping quality for a superior batsman: Pant had scored 350 runs on the previous tour. Pant’s quickfire 29 was not a defining innings, but it did make Tim Paine take a step back.
In other words, the four replacements have all contributed towards the advantage India hold at stumps on Day 3 at Melbourne. One must remember that India have already started the series without the Sharmas – Ishant and Rohit. And Ajinkya Rahane – a replacement in role, not a place in the XI – had played arguably the best innings of his Test career.
There is little to choose between the top Test sides in the world at this point. New Zealand, Australia, England, and India have an identical look to their line-ups. All four sides have superb bowling attacks, especially pace, but have one weakness or the other in their batting order; and they have proved to be invincible, especially at home.
Over the past year-and-a-half, Kyle Jamieson and Jofra Archer impressed all and sundry on debut. For Australia, Labuschagne’s return to the side as concussion substitute and subsequent rise to the No 3 spot in the ICC batting rankings has been nothing short of phenomenal.
India have not produced anyone of that stature over the same time span. However, what they have managed to produce is a seemingly bottomless talent pool. If Ishant’s absence had depleted the bowling attack ahead of the series, Shami’s injury should have rendered it toothless, with only Jasprit Bumrah around.
But while they have not been as devastating as in 2018-19, the fast bowlers have ensured the Australian batsmen have not dominated them. Australia are yet to score 200 in the series, and the pacers have played key role behind that. Even if India lose Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini has been raring to go for some time. And India will recall Bhuvneshwar Kumar at some point.
But let us look beyond this tour. Umesh may not be an automatic choice when India play overseas – India have a world-class pace attack – but his 96 Test wickets on Indian soil have come at 24.54, at a wicket every 46 balls. Put a cut-off of 75 wickets, and no Indian fast bowler has better numbers at home.
India also boast of two of greatest spinners in their history, which has reduced Kuldeep Yadav to six Tests, Shahbaz Nadeem to one, and Yuzvendra Chahal to none. Often bowling in tandem, R Ashwin and Jadeja have scythed through sides. In other words, India have the firepower to win Test matches at home even without playing Ishant, Shami, and Bumrah.
This gives India an important edge over New Zealand, England, and Australia, for none of whom can boast of an attack that will take twenty wickets consistently in the subcontinent. Not only is the Indian attack potent enough to do that, they can even summon back-up if needed.
What about batting? Remember, on this tour, the Indian squad includes Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, KL Rahul, Hanuma Vihari, Gill, and Rohit (yet to join), all of whom have opened batting in Test cricket, as has Cheteshwar Pujara. Some of them can bat down the order as well, providing India with much-needed flexibility.
Shaw had been the forerunner for India’s opening spot on the same 2018-19 tour before he was ruled out with an injury. Murali Vijay and Rahul struggled in the series – until Agarwal arrived and scored a gutsy fifty on Test debut. Vihari stepped in as opener. And Rohit took over once India were back home. Barring Vijay, the oldest, all of them have returned to Australia, two years older.
A batting nucleus that can last India years seems to have been identified. India’s is indeed a problem of plenty, and the only people who should be worried about are the selectors.
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KL Rahul has returned to India and will head to the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru for rehabilitation.
Labuschagne said Australia were expecting a little more help from the fifth day pitch but credited India for hanging on for a remarkable draw.
Pant's innings will be remembered for a long time but none can forget that Ashwin (39 no, 128 balls) and Vihari (23 off 161 balls) put their bodies on line to save a game which could have been lost in a jiffy.