India and Australia will clash on the 26th of Dec in this year’s edition of the Boxing day test at the MCG. The Boxing day test match is a big cricketing tradition in Australia. Players and spectators look forward to this festive test match as a family occasion. Much like the Superbowl in the US!
Boxing day test 2018
This year’s edition promises to be a cracker jack. The series is evenly poised with India and Australia level at 1-1. However, one might be tempted to say that Australia will have the mental edge, after having defeated India by a wide margin at Perth. Additionally, India is the team with question marks in team selection whereas Australia have a settled side.
To think that at the beginning of the series, Harsha Bhogle wondered who will be the six batsmen that will play for Australia. Khawaja was the only certainty then. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. The age-old opening batsmen conundrum has started to plague the Indian team, once again. Already, the tried and failed solution of moving up a middle order batsman to replace an out of form opener is being talked about.
One man army, check. Clueless openers, check. Middle order batsman sacrifice at the top, check. The trip down 1990s memory lane for Indian cricket fans is complete.
What could be on the anvil?
The Indian test openers have looked completely jaded for the past many months. Except for that 70 run opening partnership in the Nottingham test, the openers have failed the Indian batting unit. Historically, India have done well abroad, when their openers have fired. It is not a coincidence that India’s most consistent performances in the 2000s came when they had a good opening combination at the top. Sehwag-Chopra, Sehwag-Gambhir, Sehwag-Jaffer, Jaffer-Karthik combinations played a key role in the team’s excellent performances throughout the 2000s.
Pujara to open?
Coming back to the Boxing day test, Mayank Agarwal will definitely replace KL Rahul. Mayank deserves this chance after consistent performances in the domestic circuit. Now comes the question of Vijay. He looked reasonably confident in the second innings of the Perth test. But, failed to convert it into a reasonable score. Should Virat give him another chance?
There is a school of thought that wants Pujara to open the innings with Mayank. The argument has fair merit, considering that he is a No.3. Additionally, KL Rahul and Vijay have not kept him waiting in the dressing room for long. Having said this, I would like to point out that India’s arguably greatest No.3 batsman, Rahul Dravid, has never been comfortable being asked to open the innings. He has said it openly many times that opening the batting is way different from being at No.3. The move impacts the mental preparation that one is used to. Pujara is one of the few batsmen in form and it is better that we let him stay in his comfort zone.
Rohit to open?
So what are the other options, if one has to replace Vijay? Rohit’s name is also being bandied about. The argument is that he can do a Sehwag at the top. According to me, the logic is flawed at both the ends.
On the one end, Rohit, in the past, has failed to hold his own against fast bowlers in alien conditions, even when he played lower down the order. So to expect him to lord over them, when they have a brand new cherry in their hands is wishful thinking.
On the other end, Sehwag was not some technically incompetent slogger. Sehwag succeeded in test cricket from Day 1. He debuted with a century in Bloemfontein against the South African quicks. He had other useful scores in the middle order before he moved to the top. Many would have forgotten the match saving 60 odd he scored on a green Bangalore pitch against England in 2001. When he was asked to open, he scored a century in Trent bridge. So, let us spare Viru, the legend.
If Rohit does come out to open at the MCG, it will be on the back of Virat’s and Shastri’s desperate hope on their favorite player. MCG will not be as fast and bouncy as the Perth wicket was. They may be tempted to gamble. Going by their past moves, I will not be surprised at all!
The middle looks fairly settled. Pujara, Kohli, Rahane and Vihari should make up No.3 to No.6. India will hope that Rahane and Vihari will convert their scores into big ones. The team needs hundred hitters at these positions, 30s and 40s are good only for No.8 and 9.
Coming to the wicket keeper, I don’t think Rishab Pant is ready yet for test cricket, particularly, against this quality of bowling. His glove work has been quite good. But, his batting is full of high risk shots. Again, this dream of teams to have a Gilchrist in their midst is similar to the petulance to find a Sehwag at the top. Let us remember, Gilchrist and Sehwag were not sloggers, but stroke makers of the highest ability.
This is one area where the team has majority of the players in form. Three out of the four (Ishant, Bumrah and Shami) pick themselves. However, question mark over the fitness of Ashwin and Jadeja poses a big problem for India. Whatever be the case, Virat should not play a less than hundred percent fit spinner. Indian seamers need a fully fit spinner to hold one end, so that they can run in through the day at MCG. Bowlers will need to bowl longer spells to get wickets at MCG.
What if the injuries to the lead spinners force Virat to pick Kuldeep? Kuldeep will either turn out to be a curse or a wild success. Nothing in between. If Kuldeep gets it right, then he can run through this Australian batting line up filled with left-handers, who are uncomfortable against spin. If he fails like he did in Lord’s, he will expose the seamers. I don’t think Kuldeep can do that in-between holding job.
The Australian batting unit, through grit and determination, has performed way beyond anyone’s expectation, at the start of the series, from them. In all the four innings, they put a high price on their wicket and made useful scores. They rarely allowed wickets to fall in a heap. Players from No.1 to No.11 have made useful contributions to the team’s tally
Peter Handscomb is the only Aussie batsman that has looked out of sorts in the middle. I think, Paine will replace him with Mitchell Marsh.
Without a doubt, this is the best and the most varied bowling attack in the world today. Their fast bowlers are rapid and accurate. Lyon, well, has been a lion. Baring injuries, this quartet will trouble the Indian batsmen for the rest of the series.
In my preview to the series, I had concluded that the team that makes fewer mistakes in the batting department will hold the upper hand in this series. Thus far, the Aussie batsmen have held their fort better than their Indian counterparts.
MCG pitch, during the recently abandoned T20 match, was quite conducive to spinners and slow bowlers. It was that kind of pitch that does not favor fast scoring. So, a batsman like Pujara will play a big role. The last time India was here, Virat and Rahane treated us with an encore performance.
India needs the batting unit to click and score big. This Australian batting line up, I think, does not have the ability to put up scores in the range of 450 or above. But the India batting unit has this ability to score big. So, if the Indian batsmen get it right and make a big first innings score, it will swing the pendulum back in India’s favor. I will go as far as to say that India will win if they score 450 or above in the first innings.
Having said all of the above, I think it is advantage Australia at the start of the test in MCG. They look the more settled team and have the momentum in the series as well. Additionally, they will have a festive home crowd to support them.