India start afresh without Virat Kohli
Australia rarely lose three-match Test series at home. And with the pink-ball Test in Adelaide proving to be a no-contest, India effectively have to achieve just that: Win at least by a 2-1 margin to ensure they get to keep the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Asked to make do without Virat Kohli and Mohammad Shami after being whipped in Adelaide---Australia’s eighth win out of eight pink-ball Tests---it doesn’t get more real than this. Pride still hurting after being shot out for their lowest-ever Test total, India have to refocus and rally under stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane in the second Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, beginning Saturday. It’s a special venue for this batch of players, the MCG. For inspiration, they need to look no further than 2018, when they beat the hosts to clinch their first-ever Test series on Australian soil.
It is not going to be an easy task though. If the drop-in wicket is similar to the previous Test here between Australia and New Zealand, expect good pace and carry. That means runs will be like gold dust for India. They may be looking at a target of 275-plus to stay in the contest. The Australia pacers are eager to maintain the psychological edge gained after Adelaide, with star pacer Pat Cummins wishing for another lively track. “I thought the Ashes Test and the Indian Test at the MCG a couple of years ago were pretty flat wickets. As a bowler, last year against New Zealand, it was a really good wicket, a bit of sideways movement and a bit of pace and bounce, so, hopefully, much the same,” he told reporters in the lead-up to the second Test.
ONUS ON PUJARA, RAHANE
The first task for Rahane will be to fill the big holes left by Kohli, who has returned home for the birth of his first child, and Shami, out with a fractured arm. KL Rahul is expected to come in place of Kohli while Mohammed Siraj is favoured to take Shami’s place. Talented opener Shubman Gill is in line for his debut, at the expense of Prithvi Shaw, and Rishabh Pant could supplant Wriddhiman Saha to provide batting depth. Also in the fray is Ravindra Jadeja who could come in place of Shami or Hanuma Vihari. In challenging conditions for batting against a world-class pace attack, the onus will be on Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to soak up the pressure.
On their third tour of Australia, Rahane and Pujara have the experience. It also helps they have some good performances at the venue. Rahane hit a sparkling 147 in 2014 and Pujara a series-winning hundred in the last tour. Australia know Pujara is the prized wicket. If he gets going, Pujara sucks the life out of a bowling attack. It’s not the runs; it’s the hours he spends at the crease that can drain the energy. Last time at the MCG, Pujara faced 319 balls for 106 runs, making Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins, Lyon and Mitch Marsh toil for 169.4 overs. India’s bowlers built on that foundation to win the game by 137 runs.
It was obvious at Adelaide that Australia have put a lot of energy in planning for India’s No 3 batsman. Lyon is bowling faster to Pujara and has placed close-in fielders differently this time. Pacers are also attacking his stumps more with an extra man on the leg-side. In the first innings, just when it appeared Pujara had broken the shackles after entering the 40s, Lyon got the prized breakthrough. The second Test will give a clearer idea who has the upper-hand in this battle. It may go on to determine India’s fortunes too.
For an Australian cricketer, nothing matches the experience of walking out to the roar of a Boxing Day crowd at ‘The G’. Their spirits high after the Adelaide win, Tim Paine’s team will be fully charged to maintain the pressure. No one gets the adrenaline rush like Steve Smith at this marvellous ground. He still poses the biggest threat to India’s bowling attack. Those who were part of the India team during the 2014 Boxing Day Test will not forget Smith’s savage 192, one of the seven Test hundreds he has scored in 11 Tests against India. Smith averages 79.5 against India but at the MCG his overall average is 113.50, his best among all grounds where he has played more than once. India seem to have planned well for Smith. R Ashwin gave India a massive boost in the first innings by getting him out cheaply but it remains to be seen if it was a one-off thing or an elaborate plan at work here. Smith was in ominous form during the one-dayers but India are sure to have noted that Smith’s recent Test numbers are not great. He hasn’t got a hundred since September, 2019 and averages 40.09 in this period.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
From the winning team that played the last Test here two years ago, India are without four first-choice players, including Rohit Sharma and Ishant Sharma. Rahane, however, will take confidence from the fact that there was no Kohli, Shami, Ishant or Rohit when his team beat Australia in Dharamsala during the 2017 tour. Jasprit Bumrah hadn’t even made his debut. Apart from Rahane himself, the main performers were Rahul, Pujara, Kuldeep Yadav, Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Umesh Yadav. It shows India can compete even without the big names. After all, self-belief will play a crucial part in how India turn up in the rest of this tour.