Preview: Australia v India – Fourth Test

How could we get it all so wrong? India weren’t supposed to win at the MCG. That was supposed to be Australia-favoured. Nathan Lyon was supposed to get a bucket of wickets. The Australian batsmen were supposed to find it easy. India were in disarray with 3 changes and 4 positional changes to the side and that was supposed to hurt them. Finally, rain was supposed to wash out the last two days. It just wasn’t predictable.

One interesting fact is that, so far at least, whoever has won the toss has won the test, and it is notable that India did not win any away tests when they lost the toss this year. This is not saying that winning the toss guaranteed India the win so much as if they lose the toss then they lose the match. No ground in Australia favours the team batting first as much as the SCG does and pre-series I had predicted that that test would go to whoever won the toss. But, if the MCG test first innings is any guide, then winning the toss may not be enough for Australia.

Teams:

Australia (probable): Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Peter Handscomb, Marnus Labuschagne, Tim Paine (c) (wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood

While some reports are suggesting that Aaron Finch could play, and may even open, others are suggesting he won’t play at all. Usman Khawaja has been increasingly distracted batting at number 3, most notably due to his older brother being arrested again, and perhaps opening, as he did in the UAE with great success, would help him out. Marnus Labuschagne, of note, was actually fairly successful in the UAE, at least as a bowler and fielder. He has shown zero form domestically since then, but there’s no way that Mitchell Marsh will play. It’s hardly Australia’s best team, but given the squad they’ve insisted on committing to, there aren’t any other choices. Of note, Matthew Renshaw and Joe Burns are the two most popular players in Australia who fans want in the test team, with Glenn Maxwell the third most popular, yet none of them are in the squad. The selectors might think they know best but certainly the Australian public disagree.

India (probable): Hanuma Vihari, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah

With Rohit Sharma going home to see the birth of his new son, there is a vacancy at number 6 and there is every chance that India will use the opportunity to go back to their 5 batsmen/5 bowlers strategy that they had used with great success for the past few years. At the SCG, in spin-friendly conditions, they will be tempted to play two spin bowlers. While the Hardik Pandya option is worth considering, at the SCG he is probably a bad choice. Kuldeep Yadav is a bit unlucky to miss out too, but the amount of batting strength that would be lost with his inclusion makes that option unlikely.

Pitch and conditions: The SCG starts off good then deteriorates, then a bit more, then a lot more, until, by day 5, it is virtually unplayable. In spite of having a reputation as being spin-friendly, it isn’t exactly bad for fast bowlers either, and it is really a ground where you simply play your best bowlers, regardless of whether they are spinners or pacers. More of an issue is the fact that there is such a huge advantage in who bats first that, even with the shock loss in Melbourne, Australia could yet win at the SCG if they win the toss. That is no guarantee after that shock loss, but that’s still the prediction.

Key players:

Jasprit Bumrah had one of the best fast bowling efforts at the MCG in the first innings in recent memory as he almost single-handedly won India the match. The SCG may not help him quite as much but if he can bowl anywhere near as well as he did at the MCG then he will still be very dangerous.

Cheteshwar Pujara is the leading run scorer of this tournament and it is Pujara, not Kohli, who is most worrying Australia’s bowlers. Australia have tamed Kohli reasonably well, but Pujara just keeps plodding along and his ultra-defensive batting has paid dividends in the kind of series that will build his reputation tremendously. Already people are calling him Rahul Dravid 2.0 and it isn’t that far off.

Nathan Lyon failed to get the returns he wanted at the MCG, but he was so good at Adelaide and Perth that it is hard to see him failing in spin-friendly conditions at the SCG. He still bowled the ball of the match to dismiss Rahane at the MCG, and had two absolute dollies dropped earlier, so things could easily have been so different for him. He looks a cut above any of the Indian spin bowlers this series, and looks like Australia’s most dangerous bowler. At the SCG, if Australia are to bowl India out cheaply, it will be thanks to Lyon.

Pat Cummins was so amazing at the MCG, especially in the second innings, that he could easily have been given the man of the match award, ahead of Bumrah, except for noting that Cummins’s efforts, impressive though they were, in no way influenced the result. Even still, it was undoubtedly not ideal for Kohli, when trying for quick runs, to be facing a bowler taking 6 for 23 and having them 8 for 108, nor would it have been ideal to see Cummins take them safely to the end of day 4 with rain predicted for day 5. Cummins is in great form, so expect him to come in firing at his home ground, the SCG, with both bat and ball. He may even find himself elevated up the order to 7 or potentially even 6. If Australia are to win, Cummins looks likely to be a major part of it.

Prediction: It seems hard to imagine this not being a result, nor for there to be high scores here. This could be a scramble of 200 or 250 runs first innings, down to 100 or less in the second, with the team batting first at an enormous advantage. If India bat first, then it is hard to imagine India not winning. The greater question is whether Australia can win even if they bat first. They can, yes, but whether they will is another issue. Taking a battering like Australia did at the MCG is hard to recover from and there is a chance that Australia will still lose even if they bat first.

My prediction: whoever bats first will probably win, especially if it is India.


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