India take on Australia in the Boxing Day Test, starting at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Saturday, with what seems like a mountain to climb for the visiting team in the four-match series.
After competing hard in the first two days of the opening Test at Adelaide and entering day three with their nose ahead, India suffered the most sensational of collapses to finish with 36/9 in the second innings, their lowest ever total in Test cricket, and went on to lose the match by eight wickets.
Virat Kohli’s absence in the rest of the series is perhaps the biggest blow to the Indian team but there’s nothing they can do about. They need to make the most of the resourses on hand and for captain Ajinkya Rahane and coach Ravi Shastri, there are a number of questions to be answered ahead of the second Test.
While it’s impossible to not be jolted by the historic low in Adelaide, it’s also true that the team did match Australia blow for blow in the first half of the match. The confidence in the visitors’ camp must surely be low but they must find the belief that they can replicate the competitive cricket they played in the opener.
Kohli’s exit leaves India with a big decision to make in terms of the middle order but there are a handful of more selection dilemmas facing them.
Start from the top
The big letdown for India in the Adelaide Test was the batting department. And it started from the top. Prithvi Shaw was included in the side to provide free-flowing starts but the young right-hander could manage to face just six deliveries across the two innings and scored four runs in total.
The concern when it comes to Shaw isn’t just the number of runs he scored, it’s also the manner in which he got dismissed both times. He hadn’t got a big score in the two warm-up games and his lack of confidence was there for all to see. His technical issues, the biggest of which is the gap between bat and pad, don’t look like they will disappear anytime soon.
Shubman Gill could be Shaw’s replacement and going by the lengthy batting session he had alongside Mayank Agarwal on Wednesday, it looks like the 21-year-old is in line to make his Test debut. The right-hander got scores of 43 and 65 in the second warm-up game and looked increasingly comfortable at the crease. His game seems tighter than Shaw’s and that too will give confidence to the Indian team.
In terms of Gill, another option the team management may consider is playing him in the middle order.
Order in the middle
This brings us to KL Rahul. The 28-year-old, who has the experience of 36 Test matches under his belt, is a promising candidate for the No 4 spot. Over the past few years, Rahul has shown in white-ball cricket that he can match the very best.
Batting between Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, who tend to take their time to settle in, Kohli does an important job for India by rotating the strike and keeping the scoreboard ticking. And Rahul possesses a similar kind of quality. He has shown time and again that he isn’t afraid to take on both pacers and spinners, which could help India in stopping the Australian bowlers from settling into a rhythm.
Keep the faith?
Then there’s the wicketkeeper’s slot that India may want to tinker with. Rishabh Pant hit a quickfire ton in the second warm-up game and it came as a surprise to many when he wasn’t included for the first Test. Now, with Wriddhiman Saha failing to make a mark in both innings in Adelaide, India could well bring in Pant, who did well with the bat during the last Test series in Australia and can provide that much-needed push lower down the order.
As far as the batting department is concerned, there is one other change India might consider – Ravindra Jadeja in for Hanuma Vihari. In the first Test, R Ashwin was mighty impressive and that should ensure his participation at Melbourne. This means Jadeja’s inclusion will be because of his batting capabilities. And unless India opt to go with an attack comprising two pacers and two spinners. Jadeja is likely to come in at the expense of Vihari.
There’s nothing that Vihari did exceptionally wrong in Adelaide, but Jadeja’s form in the white-ball leg of the tour, and his impressive batting average of 41.28 in away Test matches over the past three years, will tempt India to give the all-rounder a go. Jadeja did have an hour-long bowling session in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Lastly, there is the injury to Mohammed Shami that India need to deal with. The two pace-bowling options in the squad are Navdeep Saini and Mohammed Siraj.
Neither of the right-arm pacers has played Test cricket yet but if one looks at their first-class numbers, it’s Siraj who has the edge. He has taken 152 wickets in 38 games at an average of 23.44, while Saini as picked 128 wickets in 46 games at an average of 28.46.
There isn’t much to pick between the two but they both have their strengths. While Saini is quicker and more consistent with his line and length, which is much-needed at the highest level, Siraj seems to have the ability to get on a roll once he finds his rhythm, like he did during the 8/59 he got against Australia A in an unofficial Test in Bengaluru in September 2018.
For the Indian team, due to Kohli’s absence and the spate of injuries, there isn’t much room for error when it comes to team selection. Australia have all the momentum after their thumping victory in Adelaide and the visitors will have to play their cards carefully if they want to make a comeback.