After conceding the ODI series 1-2, India evened out the equation against Australia in the three T20Is, wonderfully setting up the highly-anticipated four-match Test series.
Given the parity in the six white-ball matches, neither team has the psychological advantage heading into the longest format. Nevertheless, India will be revved up, having clinched the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2-1 during their previous tour – their maiden Test series win Down Under.
However, a stiffer challenge awaits the visitors as Australia’s squad also boasts of Steve Smith and David Warner, who served year-long bans for ball-tampering and missed the 2018/19 series.
The build-up to the Tests has kept both sides on their toes with plenty of developments that could potentially determine the series’ outcome.
The Australian unit has been grappling with injury concerns. Warner (groin injury) and Will Pucovski (concussion) have been ruled out of the first Test. In another scare, Cameron Green sustained a concussion during the second tour game.
For India, skipper Virat Kohli will return home after the first Test for the birth of his child. That said, it will be extremely crucial for him to set the tone for the remaining three matches. In Kohli's absence, Ajinkya Rahane will serve as the stand-in skipper. Ishant Sharma has been ruled out of the series owing to a side strain.
Notably, the Adelaide Test will be a day-night affair. Unlike Australia, the visitors don’t have much exposure of playing with the pink ball in top-flight cricket. India played their maiden pink-ball Test last year in Kolkata, when they thrashed Bangladesh.
Opening conundrum for both sides
India heaved a sigh a relief after Rohit Sharma was declared fit and available for the final two Tests. Until then, the visitors were to figure out Mayank Agarwal’s opening partner: a choice between Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw.
Shaw carried his terrible form from the IPL into the two tour matches. There’s a switch of formats but he didn’t seem mentally prepared for Tests, throwing his wicket to reckless shots.
Gill, on the other hand, has been better — both in terms of technique and runs. Given his scores of 43 and 65 in the second tour game, it seemed that the management would back him. In a baffling decision, however, the team persisted with Shaw for the first Test.
Post Kohli’s departure, the versatile KL Rahul is expected to be the front-runner for the No 4 slot.
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 16, 2020
In the batting department, Test specialists Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara will be expected to shoulder a major chunk of responsibility. Despite Pant's quickfire ton in the second warm-up game, the team has persisted with Wriddhiman Saha probably because of his superior wicket-keeping skills and assured batting.
Australia's opening conundrum, in comparison, is more acute in the absence of two openers. Warner and Pucovski will hopefully return for the Boxing Day Test, Cricket Australia said. Meanwhile, Marcus Harris has been drafted into the squad for the first Test and looks set to open alongside Joe Burns. Harris had an outstanding Sheffield Shield season, where he averaged 118.33 in two matches for Victoria, the highlight being his 239-run knock.
Burns, however, has struggled for runs in domestic cricket, managing just 57 in five Sheffield Shield innings. Still, he has the backing of coach Justin Langer owing to his Test experience.
Once Warner is back, the battle to partner him at the top is going to intensify further. That said, if Burns falters, he might be replaced by Harris or even young Pucovski, who looks ready for his debut after slamming consecutive double tons in Sheffield Shield.
None of the three opening contenders — Pucovski, Harris or Burns — made an impression in the two tour matches. And if this continues in the Test series, one can expect plenty of chopping and changing from Australia. In that sense, the hosts will heavily rely on Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.
How do hosts accommodate Cameron Green?
Green, just 21, has shown enough promise already. The all-rounder, who suffered a mild concussion during the second warm up game, is primed to make his Test debut against India. And going by skipper Tim Paine’s words, the youngster will take the field in the first Test itself.
"He trained really well with us yesterday and the reports are he's pulled up really well this morning, so all things going well Cameron Green will make his Test debut tomorrow," said Paine on the eve of the Adelaide Test.
The youngster from Western Australia had a terrific run with the bat in Sheffield Shield, snaring two half-centuries along with a 197 against New South Wales in four appearances. Recently, Green bolstered his case for the Baggy Green cap with an unbeaten 125 and a spell of 2/12 in the first tour game.
However, a pertinent question before the Aussie think tank will be his batting position. Green has been a middle-order batsman and to accommodate him within the same mould would require Labuschagne or Matthew Wade to move up the order.
Labuschagne has made the No. 3 position his own. But if Wade can serve as a makeshift opener, as suggested by Michael Clarke, Green can get a place in the middle order. Previously, Wade has opened for Australia in ODIs and his good run against India in the recently concluded T20Is might prompt the management to try out something of this sort.
"If you're going to pick Green then you've got to find another spot for Wadey (Wade). He's got to be in that starting XI but that could be anywhere in that team. That could be opening the batting if need be. I think Wadey can do that," Clarke had said.
Besides, Green would serve as a decent backup for the Aussie frontline bowling picks — the pace troika of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and off-spinner Nathan Lyon.
Umesh Yadav as India's third seamer
Ishant has been a bankable seamer for the Indian Test team in overseas conditions and it will be tough to fill his shoes. In his absence, Umesh Yadav has made the XI as the third seamer. The decision was on expected lines as the Nagpur bowler has previously been on three Australian tours.
Besides, he swung the ball, hit the deck hard and bowled accurate lines in the first tour game against Australia A, registering spells of 3/48 and 1/14. Mohammed Siraj scalped three wickets in the same game but will have to wait for his Test debut since he was costlier in comparison.
Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, having had ample rest, will be expected to rise to the occasion as India’s premier quicks.
With Ravindra Jadeja missing the first Test, the management has stuck with R Ashwin as specialist spinner. The fact that Kuldeep Yadav doesn't add depth to the batting, coupled with his inability to take wickets in the first tour game, could see him struggling for a place in the entire series.
Full Test squads:
India: Virat Kohli (c) (first Test only), Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Siraj.
Australia: Tim Paine (c), Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
1st Test: 17-21 December, Adelaide Oval (Sony Six, Sony Ten 1, Sony Ten 3 from 9.30 AM)
2nd Test: 26-30 December, MCG (Sony Six, Sony Ten 1, Sony Ten 3 from 5.00 AM)
3rd Test: 7-11 January, SCG (Sony Six, Sony Ten 1, Sony Ten 3 from 5.00 AM)
4th Test: 15-19 January, Gabba (Sony Six, Sony Ten 1, Sony Ten 3 from 5.30 AM)
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The Sydney Test is set for an intriguing final day in which India will primarily try to bat out three sessions.
A depleted yet plucky India still have the chance to win the series and will retain the trophy even if they draw the last Test. However, it will be an uphill task as they try to wade through challenges galore having entered the Gabbatoir.
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.