It is early morning on Christmas day in Melbourne, the streets are deserted, there is hardly a person in sight around the outer concourse of the MCG and there is scarcely a sound of a vehicle speeding past the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Amongst all the serenity and calmness is the sweet sound of a cricket ball hitting the bat of Rohit Sharma.
An hour later it is confirmed by the Indian team management that Sharma will feature in playing XI. Just as speculation begins to do rounds that Sharma could potentially open the batting, national selector MSK Prasad confronts the media to reveal that it will be Hanuma Vihari who will partner debutant Mayank Agarwal at the top of the order.
It means India will have two men opening the batting on the grand Boxing Day stage with just three Tests between them. KL Rahul and Murali Vijay may be experienced, but the team management seems to have run out of patience with them with the pair accumulating just 95 runs in 8 innings between them. The rawness at the top of the order will only add further burden on Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. The inclusion of Sharma will boost the experience in the middle order as will the inclusion of Ravindra Jadeja at No 8.
But it will be with the ball that Jadeja's performance will be keenly observed. Kohli, at the pre-game press conference, did state that the pitch is slightly dry underneath and there is hot weather forecast for the first four days of the Test. One bowler India hopes will have a change of fortunes is Jasprit Bumrah.
The Gujarat seamer has arguably been one the best fast bowler on display from both teams but is yet to pick up wickets in a larger chunk. Stats reveal that Bumrah has beaten the bat with 9 percent deliveries he has bowled in the series. India will be hoping that some of the close shaves transform into edges.
If Bumrah has been the standout for India, it is the form of Nathan Lyon that will give Australia huge confidence that they can topple India again in Melbourne. Lyon has been a constant thorn for the visitors. Indian batting unit might have spent ample time preparing for Lyon in the lead up to the series, but apart from Cheteshwar Pujara, none have found a recurring routine to negotiate the ace-spinner in the two Tests. Lyon is the leading wicket-taker in the series with 16 wickets at 19.43, he has dismissed Rishab Pant in all four innings, and he has snared Virat Kohli seven times in his career, more than any other bowler.
At the conclusion of the Perth Test match, Virat Kohli stated that it was the pace of the pitch that made it difficult for Indian batsmen to come to terms with Lyon. In Adelaide, the slowness of the pitch allowed the batsmen to play him off the back foot as he was milked for nearly three runs an over. With the Melbourne pitch expected to be a featherbed, it means Indian batsmen should be able to play Lyon by going deep in the crease and not be afraid of the ball rushing on to the bat. Lyon is proving to be a nemesis and the pivotal figure in the series. How India handles Lyon will once again decide the fate of the match.
Justin Langer summed up the mood in the Australian camp when he stated that rather than momentum it was the confidence that the team had gained after victory in Perth. Australia is not excited by the grass on the surface knowing that in the past it has not deteriorated and it could be hard toil for the next five days. If it happens to be a run spree on a dour pitch, then there will be an onus on the Australian top order to do the bulk of the scoring.
The unknown parameters of the deck along with the short turnaround between the Sydney and Melbourne Tests have forced Australia to pick Mitchell Marsh over Peter Handsomb.
At the start of the series if Australia was told that the series will be all square heading into the Boxing Day Test match they would have been quietly satisfied. For a team that is missing two of their most prolific batsmen in the past five years, and still is in with a chance to win a series against a world No 1 team is morale boosting for Justin Langer's men.
Kohli's motto has always been to look into the future and not be tied to the past and the experience of the Boxing day Test could well play a pivotal role in the first step to shaping their futures. A loss here would mean, India will still be searching for that elusive overseas win. It's time for Kohli's boys to up the ante big time and go for the kill.
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