They have lost their two first-choice pacers on the tour after already losing the spearhead before the start of the series. They have been without their captain and premier batsman after the first Test. They have lost their premier all-rounder and are about to lose the leader of their pace pack. They have been hammered in Adelaide, suffering their worst ever capitulation. They have been subject to alleged racist slurs from the stands and sledges from behind the stumps. They have been away from home for about five months. Yes, physical fatigue has set in. Yes, the minds are exhausted. Yes, the bodies are battered and bruised. But here they are, this Indian team still holding their ground as they head into their final challenge of the long Australian summer.
The Melbourne bounce-back and the guts and gumption displayed in Sydney testified to the fact that this team is one of the strongest and toughest in the history of Indian cricket. Many touring teams have crumbled on Australian tours, but this Indian team hasn’t, even in the face of adversity. They might not have won the Sydney Test, but pulling off a momentous draw would have injected massive confidence heading into the Brisbane decider. They still have the chance to win the series and will retain the trophy even if they draw the last Test. However, it will be an uphill task at the Gabbatoir for Ajinkya Rahane’s men.
India will be without Ravindra Jadeja, whose three-dimensional performances have caused a massive difference. They have lost Hanuma Vihari, one of the heroes of the fourth innings who gritted it out in the middle with a hamstring tear to pull off a draw. And they are likely to lose Jasprit Bumrah, who has suffered an abdominal strain. Unlike the first three Tests, India haven’t announced their playing eleven on the eve of the Test. The management wants to leave the decision as late as possible.
The Jadeja and Bumrah (if he doesn’t make it) losses could be huge and it could have a significant impact. It will mean that India will field a really inexperienced bowling line-up in Tests.
KL Rahul is out of the series due to a wrist injury without even getting a game. Ravichandran Ashwin battled back spasms in Sydney while Mayank Agarwal too sustained a hit on the forearm in the nets in Melbourne. The injuries have brought out various permutations and combinations for the starting eleven.
If Ashwin doesn’t play then either Washington Sundar, who was held back, could make his Test debut or India could look to unleash Kuldeep Yadav as a surprise weapon just to bring in something different; not to forget that Yadav loves bowling on bouncy tracks. Shardul Thakur could come in as the third pacer, Wriddhiman Saha may come in place of Hanuma Vihari and Pant may play purely as a batsman. Even Agarwal, if fit, can be slotted in the middle-order. T Natarajan too could be in line for a debut if Bumrah is deemed unfit. If Ashwin plays and Bumrah doesn’t, then Sundar could replace Jadeja while Thakur can come in in place of Bumrah. This might help them strengthen their lower-order. Washington’s inclusion gives them the option to go in with their favoured five-bowler strategy.
Anyhow, an inexperienced lower-middle and lower order will put more responsibility on the top and middle order. Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma combined well in Sydney, while Cheteshwar Pujara, who has been constantly under scrutiny, showed why he is so valuable to this Indian side with his fourth innings performance in the last Test. He hasn’t reached the three-figure mark in the last two years and will be desperately looking to end that drought. A huge motivating factor would be Rishabh Pant’s performance on the final day, battling through pain. He showed that the Australians could be pushed on the back foot by taking the attack to them. His battle with Nathan Lyon will be a fascinating watch.
After a quiet Sydney Test (26 runs in total), Ajinkya Rahane will be looking to bounce back and his contribution in the middle order will be vital.
Not just the injuries, there is one more challenge awaiting India – Australia’s Gabba fortress.
Playing at the Gabba could be intimidating. No team has won a Test at this ground in the last 32 years. You would have to rewind to 1988 when the Viv Richards-captained West Indies beat the Australian team, by nine wickets, at this impenetrable venue. With 40 wins from 62 matches, Australia have an overall win percentage of 64.5 percent; since 1988 it’s been 77 percent with 24 wins and seven draws from 31 matches.
Australia have a win-loss ratio of 5.0 at the Gabba, their best at any home venue. Factor this, among the teams that have played at least 50 Tests at a venue, Australia’s win-loss ratio of 5.000 at the Gabba is the highest. And they have lost just eight Tests at this venue – the least any team has lost after playing 50 Tests at a venue. They have won their last two matches at this ground by an innings (against Pakistan and Sri Lanka)
India haven’t won in Brisbane. They lost five out of six matches here and drawn one – back in 2003.
That daunting record must play on the minds of the tourists, giving the hosts the mental edge.
“All Australians love playing up there. We probably grow a leg given the record we’ve got,” Hazlewood said ahead of the fourth Test.
“We know touring sides don’t like to play there, so that puts us a bit ahead before a ball is bowled. I guess we thrive on that.
“It’s an awesome place to play. Very much an Australian venue, I’ve always enjoyed playing there.”
They may be back to their fortress but Australia too are fighting their own demons. Their catching has let them down and those three drops from captain Tim Paine on the final day at Sydney proved pretty costly. They have dropped 13 catches in the series compared to India’s nine. Captain Paine has also come under heavy criticism, especially with his behaviour after his foul-mouth tirade at umpire Paul Wilson and R Ashwin in Sydney.
The frustration is palpable and while he personally will be under pressure going into the final Test with questions over his future, he has received the support of Langer, who has a lot of faith in his skipper. “Tim is an outstanding leader and will continue to be for some time to come yet. He has my 100 percent support,” Langer said ahead of the Test.
Langer also batted for Steve Smith whose crease-scruffing antics came under the scanner.
Australia’s batting showed signs of improvement in the last Test but there is scope for more. Australian teams of yore demanded much more. The opener’s curse has continued as Will Pucovski is ruled out with a shoulder injury. Marcus Harris, who last played a Test two years ago in the 2019 Ashes, will replace him in the side. David Warner too doesn’t seem to be a hundred percent following a return from a groin injury but he is expected to play.
Then there are the tired bodies inside that dressing room as well. This bowling attack has played all three Tests so far and the pace attack will go into the final Test having bowled 74 overs combined in the final innings of the Sydney Test with just a three-day gap.
“Out of 99 Test matches, it’s the first time I’ve ever done an ice bath after a game – everyone’s doing what they can do,” Lyon said. “There are professional athletes throughout the team, especially the fast bowlers. They’re doing everything they can to make sure they’re 100 percent ready to go come Friday.”
And as Langer said, it will be the survival of the toughest.
“Test cricket, people do get under each other’s skin, don’t they?” Langer said. “That’s what great Test cricket is all about. I’ve thought from the start this series will be the survival of the fittest, mentally and physically, and we’re seeing that. It comes down to the last Test match in Brisbane. It’s mouth-watering for Test cricket that the two best teams are going at it, one of us has to win to retain or take back the Border Gavaskar Trophy. It’s Test cricket at its best. I’m loving every minute of the contest, as are our players.”
There is very little chance that Australia might opt to rest one of the pacers. The prospect of a bouncy Gabba pitch on offer might be a perfect antidote for the aching bodies.
“Yeah it (the Gabba) is right up there, no doubt about that,” Paine said in the pre-match conference. “It’s a hard place to come and play cricket. Even for Tasmanians and Victorians to come here, it can be challenging to adjust to the different bounce and speed of the wicket. It’s something that has been to the advantage of Australian teams for a long time.”
As for spin, the relentless Nathan Lyon is set to play his 100th Test and will be eyeing the 400 wickets tally, currently sitting on 396.
An intriguing series is deservedly set for an exciting finale in Brisbane. Can a bruised and depleted India produce the final push to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy? Or will the Gabba fortress come to Australia’s rescue?
Well, whatever happens, this series has already achieved the status of a classic.