They lost key players before the series, they’ve lost a few more since its start, and they’ve been rolled over for their lowest-ever total. It’s a wonder that India are still holding themselves together, never mind level in the series and looking, by some measures, a better side than Australia in their own conditions.
They’ve done this not by becoming more Australian in their approach but by trusting methods that work for them at home: bowling at the stumps rather than in the corridor outside off, and giving themselves insurance by setting strong leg-side fields. Oh, and spin has played as important a role as pace.
But for how long can they keep this run going while losing fast bowlers, one after another, to injury? They played the first Test without Ishant Sharma, played the second without Ishant or Mohammed Shami, and now, at the SCG, will be without Ishant, Shami and Umesh Yadav. This would be like Australia losing Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson to injury and being left with Pat Cummins partnering a pair of rookies.
In Test cricket, a team is as good as the weakest link in its bowling attack. At the MCG, Mohammed Siraj showed more control and skill than any fast-bowling debutant could reasonably have been expected to, especially away from home, ensuring India didn’t have a weak link that stretched the other bowlers and gave their opposition a pressure-release valve. They will hope Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur or T Natarajan can pull off something similar at the SCG, even if Jasprit Bumrah and R Ashwin continue to perform at absurdly high standards.
India will need all their parts to work smoothly together, because Australia, for all their flaws, remain a formidable side at home. Thirty-six all out may have been one of the game’s mysterious outliers, a result of the conditions and the planets aligning to turn every error into a dismissal, but it happened primarily because Australia turned in a fast-bowling performance of the highest quality. Their quicks, Cummins in particular, were perhaps just as good with the new ball at the MCG, even if the scorecard didn’t reveal it.
Both teams will have rejigged top orders, with David Warner and Rohit Sharma set to return from injury and Will Pucovski making a highly anticipated debut. Both attacks will have new problems to solve, and if either opening combination can survive the first hour-and-a-half, the tone of the series could be transformed. What Steven Smith and Cheteshwar Pujara would give to start their innings against an older ball, against bowlers in their second spells, and with one or two fewer catchers around the bat.
Australia: LWWWW (last five Tests, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Australia have endured their slowest-scoring home series of the century, and couldn’t be happier to see David Warner back in their side. Warner has a formidable record in home Tests, averaging nearly 66, but Australia are taking a risk by playing him because he hasn’t fully recovered yet from the groin injury he suffered during the ODI series. There’s also the small matter of Jasprit Bumrah to negotiate for the first time in Tests, as well as R Ashwin, who has dismissed Warner more often in Tests than any other bowler bar Stuart Broad.
India have an opening batsman to welcome back as well. Rohit Sharma has batted at the top of the order in only five Tests so far, but averages 92.66 there. He hasn’t played Test cricket since November 2019, though, and he’s never opened overseas. If he can see off the first spells of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, though, he could make a huge difference to a side that has only managed opening partnerships of 7, 0, 16 and 0 through the series so far.
Australia have not announced their XI yet, but the indications are that David Warner and Will Pucovski will open the batting, with Joe Burns and Travis Head dropping out of the side.
Australia (probable): 1 David Warner, 2 Will Pucovski, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Matthew Wade, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Tim Paine (capt & wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Josh Hazlewood.
The two main questions facing India were where Rohit Sharma bats, and who comes in for Umesh Yadav. Rahane confirmed on match eve that the answer to the first one is at the top of the order (probably in place of Mayank Agarwal, though that was not confirmed by Rahane); the answer to the second is likely Navdeep Saini.
India (probable): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Ajinkya Rahane (capt), 5 Hanuma Vihari, 6 Rishabh Pant (wk), 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 R Ashwin, 9 Navdeep Saini, 10 Mohammed Siraj, 11 Jasprit Bumrah.
Pitch and conditions
Persistent rain in the lead-up to the Test match – and the uncertainty over whether Sydney would host it at all, following a Covid-19 outbreak in the city’s northern beaches area – have hampered preparations at the SCG, but its curator Adam Lewis has promised a hard pitch with plenty of grass on it. The traditional turning track at the SCG is now largely a thing of the past, but India’s two spinners will be encouraged by the fact that Kuldeep Yadav picked up a five-for here two years ago, and that Nathan Lyon bagged a ten-wicket match haul against New Zealand last year.
Rain has lately bedeviled the SCG at this time of the year, contributing to three draws in the last six Tests at the venue, but the forecast is reasonably encouraging, with mild showers predicted on the first two days and mostly dry weather thereafter.
Stats and trivia
- India have won only one of their 12 Tests in Sydney – an innings win engineered by Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Prasanna over a Packer-depleted Australia side in January 1978 – but they have come close on numerous other occasions, with resolute Australian batting, a lack of penetration in their bowling, and/or rain preventing them from pulling off big New Year’s wins in 1986, 1992, 2004 and 2019.
- India have often looked uncomfortable against Nathan Lyon’s dip, turn and bounce over their last two tours of Australia, but the numbers show their own spinners may have outbowled him. Lyon has taken 25 wickets in six Border-Gavaskar Tests in this period, at an average of 31.36. R Ashwin (20.37), Ravindra Jadeja (24.30) and Kuldeep Yadav (19.80) all have better averages in these games, and Ashwin and Jadeja have achieved better economy rates than Lyon’s 2.67 too.
- Lyon needs six wickets to reach the 400 mark in Test cricket.
- Cheteshwar Pujara is 97 runs short of the 6000 mark in Tests, and Ravindra Jadeja 74 short of 2000.
“We’ve got a great record here and for a lot of our guys it’s their home ground so they certainly love playing here, they love being at home and they enjoy the conditions. All of our bowlers are New South Welshmen so they know the wicket very well, they exploit the conditions very well and they bowl really well as a group here. The same with our batting. Our two best batsmen – this is their home ground, this is where they do their best.”
Tim Paine is thrilled to be playing at the SCG
“As a team you have three-four plans and you have to see which plan works on a given day. You have to see the wicket as well. But yes we have got three-four plans. We know if plan A doesn’t work for us, we go to plan B and C. It is important to plan well especially when you come to Australia. We know they are a very good team, a very dangerous team. Depending on the situation, depending on the wicket, conditions, also bounce off the wicket, we plan accordingly.”
Ajinkya Rahane says India have more than the leg-side trap up their sleeves
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo