December 25, 2018
The ground staff at the Melbourne Cricket Ground are promising a pitch with life and verve. The teams fronting up for Boxing Day are promising the same. Australia and India are sitting even at 1-1, in a series that has produced plenty of spice, ready to fight for a lead in front of the biggest cricket crowd in the world.
Australia feels like the team with the advantage, or at least there’s an energy that suggests it, given the way the home side came out ahead in the second Test last week. But English readers especially might well remember a previous southern summer that featured a visiting team winning in Adelaide, then the home side roaring back in Perth to level the series.
That was 2010, and Australia went on to effectively cede the Ashes within the first hour on Boxing Day. The energy of their Perth win had convinced those players that they had the momentum. Once conditions returned closer to normal, it turned out that being the better cricket team was kind of helpful.
Such is the risk for this current Australian side. After the emotional peak of a hard-fought match and a comeback, it can be easy to fall over at the next time of asking. Concentration slips away, emotional exhaustion kicks in. This team knows plenty about losing Tests in a session. That’s what would have happened a couple of months ago in Dubai if not for Usman Khawaja later performing a miracle. It happened in Abu Dhabi the week afterwards, and it happened in Adelaide to start this India series.
Australia’s bowling attack is firing. Nathan Lyon has shown a willingness to duel with the world’s best, and the skill to get the better of them. Mitchell Starc shrugged off criticism after Adelaide to play a big role in Perth. Josh Hazlewood and Patrick Cummins have been immaculate. The batting remains the weakness, and yet the only change for Boxing Day involves replacing a specialist bat with an all-rounder.
Peter Handscomb must feel like he’s reliving a bad dream. The previous summer he played two Ashes Tests, kept getting dismissed while trapped on his back foot, and had Mitchell Marsh replace him for the third Test. Handscomb’s two Tests this summer have gone exactly the same way, as has his replacement.
And while captain Tim Paine suggested that Handscomb would return for Sydney due to his skill playing spin, that obviously won’t happen if Marsh repeats his efforts from last year: he smashed 181 in Perth, batted most of the fifth day for a Melbourne draw, then made 101 in Sydney.
Marsh has been as underwhelming with the bat internationally and domestically since that excellent season. But in Melbourne where the pitch often makes hard toil for bowling sides, the extra option he offers with the ball has proven too hard to ignore. India, however, will go in with just four bowlers, as well as a radically overhauled side.
In a slightly different world, Murali Vijay wouldn’t have opened the batting at all. The young sensation Prithvi Shaw should have been, but ruined his ankle in a warm-up match and has since been ruled out of the series. Both Vijay and KL Rahul have had a miserable series in his absence, and now both have been given the chop at the same time. Karnataka batsman Mayank Agarwal vaults from the squad into the team, while Hanuma Vihari will move up the order after contributing with runs and wicket-taking off-breaks in Perth.
So Vihari gets a promotion rather than the sack, but his all-rounder spot at number six won’t go to fast-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya, though. Instead Rohit Sharma comes back into the side, as India’s management tacitly acknowledge that they got the balance wrong in Perth. Premier spinner Ravi Ashwin is still sidelined with a side strain, so left-armer Ravindra Jadeja is the spinner who replaces paceman Umesh Yadav.
An order with Rohit at six, wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant at seven, and Jadeja at eight is much more imposing than in the previous Test, where the weak batting of India’s pace quartet meant it was a case of six out, all out. Jadeja has been in excellent batting form the past couple of years, and can offer some sort of inoculation to the willow allergies of fast bowlers Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, and Jasprit Bumrah.
This is a team desperate to do well overseas, and this year alone they’ve tackled what have historically been India’s three toughest tours. In South Africa and in England, India won a Test each but let the series slip. This Australian trip is the last chance for a while to notch one of those big results, and a series lead has been levelled up. It will take another big effort to pull ahead.
For both teams, a batting-friendly pitch could see them settle into some long calm days of cricket. But equally, under the stresses and strains besetting each side, that one bad hour could be along any minute. For both, the challenge is not falling apart now that the series is into its deciding stage.