India's captain, Ajinkya Rahane, center, talks with head coach Ravi Shastri Indian players train in Sydney, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, ahead of their cricket test against Australia starting Thursday.(AP)
India's captain, Ajinkya Rahane, center, talks with head coach Ravi Shastri Indian players train in Sydney, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, ahead of their cricket test against Australia starting Thursday.(AP)

India vs Australia: Who will make Sydney grade?

Bringing in Rohit Sharma, who has been named vice-captain, would mean tinkering with the team that won the second Test in Melbourne.
By Abhishek Paul | New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 06, 2021 07:56 AM IST

Rohit Sharma testing negative for Covid-19 before arriving in Sydney may have cleared the air over a possible bio-security crisis, but another question remains: will he be named in India’s XI for the third Test starting Thursday? And will that decision go down well?

The team is in high spirits after stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane led from the front for a series-levelling win in Melbourne. Bringing in Sharma, also the new vice-captain, would mean tinkering with a winning combination at a venue where India finds it hard to win. The team has one victory at the SCG in 12 attempts.

Any which way, the team that won at Melbourne will not take the field at Sydney; in the bowling department, there will be a forced change due to Umesh Yadav’s calf injury. But Sharma’s case is different.

Before the start of the tour, several former players including Glenn McGrath threw their weight behind Sharma to bolster the Indian batting in Virat Kohli’s absence. His rising batting graph over the years invokes such confidence.

Also Read | Sydney store owner responds to Virat Kohli, Hardik Pandya’s alleged bio-bubble breach

A proven opener in limited-over formats, Sharma’s stocks have grown since he was pushed to the slot in Tests against South Africa in 2019. In the six innings since then, he has reached triple figures thrice. On the flipside, none of those came outside India and his last Test match was way back in November, 2019. Sharma hasn’t played any competitive cricket since the IPL final in November, 2020.

INJURY CONCERNS

Sharma joined the team post its second Test win as he was undergoing a two-week quarantine after an extended rehab in India due to a hamstring injury. The 33-year-old has only had a few net sessions, some of those indoors due to inclement weather in Melbourne.

With another back-up batsman KL Rahul ruled out of the series on Tuesday with a sprained left wrist, would the team risk the experienced Sharma who is short on match practice?

If Sharma does come in, one among openers Mayank Agarwal and Shubman Gill may have to forfeit his place. Gill is a young talent and at the MCG did not go on the defensive with the Australian pacers on fire. Agarwal is yet to score big in this series, but has built a phenomenal record as India’s regular opener in the past two years.

Also Read | India Predicted XI for 3rd Test: Ajinkya Rahane & co. likely to make two changes in Sydney

There is also the possibility that all three play. In that case, either Gill or Sharma will have to be pushed to the middle order at the cost of Hanuma Vihari. Being the regular No. 5 or No. 6, though, Vihari forms a crucial link between the top-order and the tail.

SPINNERS CRUCIAL

In Yadav’s absence, this will be the third straight Test where India will have a different bowling combination. To India’s benefit, the SCG has always helped spinners and India duo Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are in form.

Ashwin has kept Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne quiet in the first two Tests, dismissing each of them twice, while Jadeja has grown in confidence following his all-round show in the second Test. They hold the key along with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj, who impressed on debut in the last match.

For the fifth bowler’s slot, Shardul Thakur and Navdeep Saini are the two more experienced options and Thangarasu Natarajan the dark horse. Thakur and Saini have been with the senior team as well as the ‘A’ side for the last couple of years while left-arm pacer Natarajan has continued on a meteoric rise since the IPL.

Thakur has the experience of 62 first-class matches (most among the three) and can bowl longer spells. Saini has more speed, though he can be wayward with his line. It will probably be a toss-up between these two.

WARNER’S RETURN

The Australian camp, smarting from a deflating eight wicket loss at the MCG, is far from being a settled unit. With the axing of an off-colour Joe Burns, the hosts will have a new opening pair. The explosive David Warner is expected to make a return from groin injury, though he may be limited in his shot execution.

“Very hopeful that David will be ready to go (for the third Test), he is a bit of a warrior, isn’t he? He has had a good rehab, as I said he might be little restricted in the field, he might get that area little bit fatigued, because he hasn’t played Test cricket for a while but we wouldn’t take that risk if we thought he would re-injure himself,” Justin Langer, Australia coach, said on Tuesday.

Warner’s return has been rushed after the Australian batsmen failed to complement the stupendous show of their three quicks – Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. In none of the four innings so far have they crossed 200. Australia would also hope Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne find form.

“I don’t coach Steve Smith. Steve Smith coaches himself and I’m sure he’s going to work it out,” Langer said. “He is a great player and I can’t wait to watch him bat this Test match and the next Test match.”

LYON EYEING MILESTONE

In the midst of an impending change in the batting combination, one long-serving Australian player – Nathan Lyon - is on the cusp of a personal milestone.

The off-spinner, who had picked five-wicket hauls in both innings the last time Australia played in Sydney against New Zealand in January 2020, needs six more wickets to reach 400.

“Those milestones will be nice to look at, at the end of my career, it’s obviously pretty amazing that a couple of them are just around the corner personally, but for me it’s more about making sure that we come out and (I) play my role,” said Lyon, who is two matches short of playing 100 Tests.

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