India's depleting pace resources, Australia's opening conundrum: Talking points ahead of SCG clash
After suffering another injury blow with the loss of Umesh Yadav, India got a much-needed boost as Rohit Sharma, who had been serving a two-week isolation, joined the squad at Melbourne
With the four-match Test series level at 1-1 after both India and Australia registered identical eight-wicket victories against each other, the action shifts to the Sydney Cricket Ground amid rising worries over the COVID-19 outbreak in the New South Wales region.
The lead-up to the crucial encounter has been beset by off-field controversies, be it the alleged bio-bubble breach by Team India cricketers or the headlines around the visitors expressing reservations over stricter quarantine rules in Brisbane -- the venue of the fourth Test match.
But, coming back to the cricketing aspects, both teams will be looking to solve a few puzzles around their playing combinations.
After suffering another injury blow with the loss of Umesh Yadav, India got a much-needed boost as Rohit Sharma, who had been serving a two-week isolation, joined the squad at Melbourne and has now taken over the responsibilities of vice-captain.
For Australia, there are problems aplenty, be it the lack of form of their openers or Steve Smith's barren run. A slip-up now will be costly for Tim Paine and Co, as they will not only end up losing back-to-back Test series at home against India, but also may miss the bus for the World Test Championship final scheduled later this year.
Here are some of the key talking points around the playing XI of both teams:
Experienced Shardul Thakur or X-factor Natarajan in Umesh's place?
Despite winning the Melbourne Test comprehensively, India received another setback as Umesh Yadav limped off during the second innings and was subsequently ruled out of the remaining two Tests as scans revealed a calf muscle tear.
Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Ravindra Jadeja and debutant Mohammed Siraj stepped up in the Vidarbha Express's absence and guided their team to a memorable eight-wicket win.
Still, heading into the 'make or break' third Test at Sydney, India will have to make another forced change in their fast bowling battery.
While the newest sensation of Indian cricket T Natarajan and Mumbai pace spearhead Shardul Thakur have replaced Umesh and Mohammed Shami for the last two Tests, only one of them will get the nod for the Sydney encounter.
Thakur, who is already an integral part of India's white-ball set-up, hasn't had a kind history in the game's longest format.
The pacer, who has 312 scalps in 129 List A and first-class games, first caught the selectors' attention during the 2015/16 Ranji final between Mumbai and Saurashtra, where one of his wickets was India's Test superstar Cheteshwar Pujara.
While he was included in the senior team during the Caribbean tour that year, Thakur didn't get a chance to play.
In 2018 home series against the same opposition, the Palghar lad's maiden outing was cut short in the first innings itself, as he left the field with a groin injury after bowling just ten deliveries.
While Thakur's story is all about perseverance and hard work (be it travelling hundred kilometres with kitbag from Palghar to Mumbai or his transformation as an effective lower order batsman), he pretty much fits into Rahane and Co's blueprint for the SCG encounter due to his bowling pattern, i.e. hit the deck, get extra bounce and unpredictable seam movement, along with an effective outswinger.
With his batting prowess already proven as a decisive factor in some of India's recent white-ball victories, the 29-year-old will be a heavyweight frontrunner as Bumrah's partner in crime in the third Test.
T Natarajan will be another candidate to take Umesh's spot. After a remarkable IPL 2020, the Tamil Nadu pacer continued his rise in international cricket by becoming the highest wicket-taker of the recently concluded T20 series Down Under.
Natarajan, who stayed back in Australia as a net bowler, has an impressive record in the List A format (64 scalps in 20 games).
The left-arm pacer's yorkers and ability to consistently hit the Test match line and length, while generating deadly swing, will force the team management to rethink over keeping the youngster on the sidelines.
If he goes on to make his debut, Natarajan will be the first left-arm pacer to feature in Team India's playing XI after Zaheer Khan's last Test against New Zealand in February 2014.
Uncertainty over Agarwal, Vihari; Rahul in middle-order?
Opener Rohit Sharma's return to the Team India set-up after his hamstring injury and two-week quarantine in Sydney, along with Shubman Gill's sparkling show in Melbourne, have left the axe hanging over Mayank Agarwal as the rejuvenated visitors will be looking to plug their batting loopholes to keep up the pressure on the Aussies.
Much like Joe Burns, Agarwal's form too has been a topic of hot discussion. His highest in the series so far has been only 17 in the first innings of the Adelaide Test.
The opener's failure to save his stumps and getting squared up against the swinging red cherry has become a new normal now. The reason? The Karnataka youngster's excessively high backlift and wide footwork while taking his stance.
On the other hand, Hanuma Vihari, who consolidated his spot in the middle order after a successful debut during the 2018 England tour, didn't perform well this time around.
His scores in the three innings of the Test series read: 16, 8 and 21. After struggling against Starc and Co in the Adelaide day-nighter, it felt like he was finally coming to terms with Australian conditions as the 52-run fourth wicket partnership between him and skipper Rahane helped India stage a comeback after being reduced to 64-3 on the morning of Day 2 in the second Test.
After keeping the home side's fast bowlers at bay on a lively MCG surface, Vihari's 66-ball stint ended when an unsuccessful attempt to sweep Nathan Lyon resulted in a top-edge landing in Steve Smith's hands.
While some sections of the team management may like to back Agarwal for the sake of stability at the top and replace Vihari with Gill in the middle order, another school of thought would prefer excluding both the out-of-form batters and giving KL Rahul a go at number five.
Rahul, who last played a Test during the 2019 Caribbean tour, has 2006 runs in 36 games with an average of 34.59.
While his poor record Down Under (just one century in nine innings) may work against the case for giving the Karnataka batsman another go in Test matches, Vihari's poor form and Kohli's absence leave no other option for the team management but to look towards Rahul to solve the middle-order crisis.
Can Warner and Pucovski give Aussies the much-needed intent at the top?
The home side's approach with the bat looked timid, with opener Joe Burns and Mathew Wade finding it difficult to get going. Despite scoring a fifty in the second innings of the Adelaide day/nighter, Burns' poor footwork and lack of confidence amid the rigours of Test cricket became a talking point.
Wade, on the other hand, despite being well-settled on scores of 30 and 40 in both innings of the MCG encounter, threw away his wicket. The lack of intent from the openers resulted in the Aussies going into a shell and letting the visitors dictate terms. Throughout the match, they couldn't even manage a run rate above two.
The contribution of the opening partnerships in three of the four innings was 16, 4 and 10. Steve Smith's poor form heaped more pressure on youngsters like Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head and Cameron Green as India perfectly executed their plans with the ball.
Now, to turn the tide at the SCG, the home side has brought back veteran David Warner, along with talented youngster Will Pucovski. Warner, who is still recovering from the groin injury suffered during the ODIs against the Indians, is likely to play the third Test.
Despite not being fully fit, Warner is being fast-tracked by a desperate Aussie team management due to the following factors:
In home conditions, Warner averages 65.94, compared to 34.50 overseas. His strike rate is around 75.6 in front of home crowds. Away from home, it is 68.78.
43 out of Warner's 84 Test matches have been played in Australia. He has been on the losing side in only four home games, while 32 of the remaining 39 encounters have ended in victories.
In those 32 victories, Warner has averaged 64.58, along with a strike rate of 75.04, as against his overall numbers, which are 48.94 and 72.85.
A by-product of the attacking school of Test match batting, Warner has successfully carried forward the legacy of Mathew Hayden and Virender Sehwag. His presence at the crease has often resulted in the Aussies scoring more than four runs per over in the opening hour of home games, thereby throwing the opposition's bowling plans into disarray.
Against India in the 2014-15 series at home, Warner amassed 427 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of nearly 78. Talking about India, the left-hander also has a healthy average of 49.50 in eight matches with an intimidating strike rate of nearly 83.
While the Aussie team management would be expecting Warner to repeat his 2014-15 heroics, he will, in all probability, have a new opening partner in the form of Pucovski.
Pucovski, who grabbed the headlines during the 2020/21 Sheffield Shield season with an average of 247.50 after scoring back-to-back double tons, was robbed of a debut at Adelaide due to the concussion he suffered during the first warm-up game against India. Despite him having regular net sessions and weight training ahead of the SCG clash, the home side will be keeping their fingers crossed over the 22-year-old.
Worries around Labuschagne and Smith:
While the Aussies would be looking for a fresh start in 2021 in terms of solving their opening woes, the middle order too looks in disarray.
Steve Smith, who entered the series with a superb record against Indians (1,429 runs in ten matches), looked completely out of sorts. With only ten runs in three innings so far, the 31-year-old has fallen prey to India's strategy of bowling with a packed leg-side field.
In the first innings of both the Adelaide and Melbourne Tests, Ashwin dismissed the former Aussie skipper with similar field placements. The poor run has also cost Smith the number one spot in the ICC's Test Batting Rankings.
Smith's struggles are reminding everyone of Sachin Tendulkar's trip Down Under in 2003/04, where the Aussies bothered the maestro by packing the offside including the slip region.
While the legendary batsman countered it through straight drives and leg side strokeplay during his highest Test knock (241*) at the SCG, the Aussie team management will be expecting a similar performance from Smith as the teams square off against each other at the same venue.
Like Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, who played a key role in Australia's Ashes defence in England in 2019, followed by a dream run against Pakistan and New Zealand in the following home Tests, is also facing a lean run with the bat.
The 26-year-old has made 129 runs in four innings so far, unable to convert starts like 48 and 28 into big scores during the Melbourne Test. He has also found it difficult to counter India's heavy leg-side field and wicket-to-wicket line.
Despite being the second highest scorer in the series, Labuschagne hasn't been at his usual fluent best. Batting with an out-of-form Smith and lack of contributions from Travis Head and Cameron Green in the middle order have also affected his strike rate (41.61).
Another worry is his failure to reach the fifty-run mark despite getting starts.
During the 2019/20 home season against New Zealand and Pakistan, he only failed to reach fifty once in eight innings, and converted four of those starts to hundreds and double tons.
It is quite evident that if Smith and Labuschagne don't come back to their marauding best, taking revenge for the 2018/19 Test series loss against India at home will be a herculean task for Paine and co.