India vs Australia, 4th Test: R Ashwin's form a worry, Mohammed Shami's return a distinct boost for hosts
A good case could be made for India choosing the more attacking option and benching Karun Nair in favour Shami, who seems to have gotten over the injury sustained against England.
"MY GOD" reads a tweet from cricket writer and radio commentator Geoff Lemon, "LOOK AT THIS INDIAN PITCH oh no wait that is just some bread". Judging by that post and others, Lemon is mildly annoyed with this cricket season's version of the Great Indian Dope Trick.
There is an art to this. You say the following: It is hard. There is some grass on it but it is dead grass rolled in "as makeup". There is a bit of moisture beneath the surface (duh!). In the first hour it will give you some bounce and carry. It will become progressively lower and slower. It will crack up as the sun beats down on it and it will turn sharply. The turn will only be out of any rough that is created. The turn will become slower and the ball will keep lower as the game progresses...
You can say the above in whatever order you like, but you have to say all of it, with a suitably portentous expression. (To get the face right, pretend you have to go to the loo urgently).
Not kidding. Here's Josh Hazlewood, mildly edited, on the wicket: "I think the wicket will determine a result. They need to win so the wicket they serve up will bring a result into the game. We played New Zealand here in the T20 World Cup nearly 12 months ago. It spun quite a bit that game. They can make it however they want, really. It sometimes has pace and bounce and sometimes has spin. Guess we'll find out."
That is 68 words worth of 'God knows'. So here's the FirstPost pitch report: We don't know exactly how it's going to behave, nor how its behaviour will change over the course of the next five days.
Happy now? Okay then, for our next trick we are about to reveal the winning number for the Bhutan Super Duper Bumper Lottery.
It is hard to see the Aussies making a change - unless they find that the split callus on Nathan Lyon's spinning finger hasn't yielded to treatment. The injury prevented Lyon from giving the ball a rip, with the result that he got neither the drift, the bounce nor the sharp turn he found in the first innings in Bengaluru; in Ranchi he bowled 46 unimpressive overs, just two less than Hazlewood and 31 overs less than the overworked Steve O'Keefe, buying the wicket of Cheteswar Pujara for a total of 163 runs while leaking 3.54 runs per over in an innings where India's overall run rate was a mere 2.8.
If not him, though, who? If the Aussie reading of the wicket and conditions is that it will have sustained pace, bounce and swing over the course of the game, then maybe it would be Jackson Bird for Lyon, with Glenn Maxwell having to do a lot of off-spin as SOK's partner. But it's hard to see that happen - an unchanged lineup looks the most logical option.
India, likewise, will at best only exchange a dodgy right shoulder for a fit one - the first belonging to Virat Kohli, the second to Shreyas Iyer. Kohli has been avoiding batting in the nets; his sleeveless T-shirt and heavy strapping on the injured finger giving him the impression of a shop-window mannequin the display guys haven't finished dressing up yet. How much of this is mind fakery and how much is for real, no one knows - in a press conference on Thursday he said he felt his injury "during reactive moments" in Ranchi, which is to say during any serious cricketing activity, and he would play only if 100 percent fit.
If he is deemed not fully fit when a final call is taken on Saturday morning, then it will be 22-year-old Iyer getting a Test cap and batting at number four. The free-stroking Mumbai right-hander smacked 202 off 306 balls laced with 27 fours and seven sixes when India A took on the visitors in a warm-up game at Mumbai's Brabourne Stadium. That attack had Bird and Mitchell Marsh fronting it, and Lyon and O'Keefe doing spin duty and getting taken apart by Iyer, who incidentally also bowls okay leg-breaks and googlies.
A good case could be made for India choosing the more attacking option and benching Karun Nair in favour Mohammad Shami, who to all appearances seems to have gotten over the injury sustained in the third Test against England earlier in the season. His inclusion makes sense - Shami's ability to skid the ball through and seam/swing it both ways works as well with the old ball as with the new, and his presence as a fifth bowler will allow the home side to use the two frontline pacers in shorter, sharper bursts.
Will India make the punt? Unlikely, with the series on the line and the scars of four batting collapses (plus an almost-collapse before Pujara and Wriddhiman Saha did their double act in Ranchi) still fresh.
The Ashwin conundrum:
'What is wrong with Ravichandran Ashwin?' seems to be, judged on the unscientific evidence of email queries and Twitter mentions, the question exercising Indian cricket's amateur out-patient wing, to wit, the fans.
The symptoms are fairly obvious; the 'disease', if indeed there is one, is not. A country used to its talismanic off-spinner running through sides on even concrete tracks and taking five-fors for fun is understandably bemused after Ranchi, where he bowled 74 overs across two innings, taking two wickets in toto for a combined cost of 185 runs. What makes it harder to take is that in the second innings, with India sniffing a possible win, Ashwin seemed totally ineffective on what the experts decreed a "spinning track".
Watch a replay of the Test (I did, on fast forward) and you realise there is nothing visibly wrong with the individual balls he has bowled - the issue, if in fact it is one, seems to have more to do with approach rather than mechanics.
Ashwin is the sort of bowler who settles smoothly into his work - he has an idea of his preferred lengths and lines for each pitch and in fact for each spell, and he goes steadily to work on those plans, grooving himself nicely and fine-tuning his approach before he begins to try out his variations.
In Ranchi, however, he seemed more often than not to bowl all-sorts, particularly in the second innings - each ball in an over was different from the other, a sign of a bowler trying too hard too often to make things happen.
Psycho-babble is an irresistible temptation when doing these previews. Succumbing momentarily, I wonder if Ravindra Jadeja overshadowing him as India's leading strike bowler, first in Bengaluru and then in the first innings in Ranchi, has had the unintended effect of the always competitive Ashwin trying much too much to reclaim the pole position.
A day earlier, the BCCI Twitter stream featured a lovely shot of him bowling in the nets at Dharamshala. It is an immaculate freeze frame of an off spinner plying his trade - left toe pointing straight down the pitch at the batsman, body perfectly in line, right shoulder driving through, lovely looping flight, with the side-on seam indicating the potential for drift in the air and turn off the pitch.
It's a picture of a spinner at the top of his craft. It is a picture of the Ashwin we did not see in Ranchi.
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