Nagpur, Feb 8 (PTI): Rohit Sharma, a bonafide white-ball legend, will face his biggest test as India’s red-ball captain against a determined Australian side which would be hungry for revenge when the much-awaited Border-Gavaskar series starts here Thursday.
It is a series that promises a lot of twists and turns, engrossing sub-plots and probably career-defining performances.
It’s such a high-profile rubber that non-performance could lead to end of career for some after this series.
During the hey days of Channel 9, former Australia captain Bill Lawry would often use the term “It’s all happening at the MCG” during exciting games. Trust this four-Test series to throw up more surprises than one can possibly envisage.
The series, a cricket connoisseurs’ delight, will throw up several topics of discussion as the caravan moves from one destination to the other.
Will captain Rohit Sharma curb his instinct to pull Pat Cummins if the Australian captain keeps a long leg and digs one short?
Will Virat Kohli use the sweep shot more often against Ashton Agar and Nathan Lyon as the batting stalwart looks to turn around his ordinary showing against slow bowlers in recent times?
Can Suryakumar Yadav’s ‘three-dimensional’ strokeplay earn him Rahul Dravid’s faith ahead of Shubman Gill, the man touted to lead India’s batting when the transition phase kicks-in in another 18 to 24 months?
Will Axar Patel’s under-cutters be more effective than Kuldeep Yadav’s trickeries of bringing the ball back into right handers?
The back-to-back series defeats in their own den (2018-19 and 2020-21) have hurt Cummins and his players and they certainly have revenge on its mind, even though it will be easier said than done on a pitch that promises appreciable turn from first day itself.
The quality of India versus Australia Test matches since the epic 2001 series has, at times, been better than the Ashes. The journey of this batch of Australian cricketers won’t be complete if they don’t emulate the exploits of the Matthew Haydens, Justin Langers, Glenn McGraths or the Adam Gilchrists of 2004.
Steve Smith put it aptly, saying a series win in India will be bigger than the Ashes.
For Rohit, who has unfortunately missed all the Test matches or series against bigger teams either due to injuries (hamstring vs South Africa and split webbing vs Bangladesh in 2022) or illness (Covid-19 vs England in the one-off game), would like to emulate his predecessor Kohli in leading the team to another World Test Championship final.
For that to happen, India will need a clear two-match victory margin and Rohit’s biggest weapon of execution will be his quartet of spinners, out of which three are supposed to play. Not to forget, his batters need to rise up to Nathan Lyon’s challenge. The hosts haven’t been up to scratch when they play slow bowlers on rank turners.
Those who have followed the developments in Indian cricket, know that Rohit was initially reluctant to take up red-ball captaincy and is yet to face any major opposition as leader in the format.
This is the series which will actually chart his legacy as a leader.
No one knows how he must have felt when the BCCI removed him from T20I captaincy after the World Cup defeat in Australia last year. But knowing Rohit, he will never say a word publicly though he would definitely have been hurt.
The decisions he takes during the series will go a long way in defining his leadership qualities in testing times.
He will miss Rishabh Pant, his biggest game-changer, and how the team adjusts to the keeper-batter’s absence will be the most important aspect during the series.
Kona Bharat’s ability as a keeper is impressive but despite a triple hundred at the Ranji level, one isn’t quite sure about his capabilities as a batter while facing high-quality Test match bowling.
Bharat was troubled a lot by a fifth-string Delhi bowling attack on a tacky Kotla track in Delhi. He huffed and puffed to 80, but the way he struggled against the fast off-breaks of Hrithik Shokeen, offers a preview of what could be in store for the 29-year-old against someone like Nathan Lyon.
Ishan Kishan, with his left-handed flair, was closer to Pant in terms of batting skill-set but can Rohit or coach Rahul Dravid take the risk if he misses a stumping or a low catch when the ball starts turning square on the third evening or fourth afternoon?
People would be sceptical as he hasn’t kept wickets in red-ball cricket.
To be some sort of a maverick, Rohit perhaps needed to drop KL Rahul straightaway, but sending him for the media conference two days before the Test was a statement that his deputy’s place is non-negotiable despite a string of horrendous performances.
Which effectively means that either Suryakumar or Gill, two potential match winners, will have to sit out.
But the biggest decision for Rohit would be to choose between Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav, although the Gujarat man looks favourite to get the nod.
There is a theory that India might play four spinners and Ravichandran Ashwin could be handed the new ball.
But on a pitch that is bone dry on both sides, reverse swing might come into play and both Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj can make that old ball deviate in the opposite direction.
For Australia, it seems, Ashton Agar with better lower-order batting abilities, will get the nod as Lyon’s spin partner ahead of Mitchell Swepson, as Scott Boland prepared to share the new ball with his skipper.
The Australian team is loaded with left handers and four of them — David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Travis Head and Alex Carey — are almost certain to play. The two right handers will be Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.
But in Cameron Green’s absence, the choice for an additional batter will be between the right-handed Peter Handscombe and southpaw Matt Renshaw.
For bookmakers, the series would be nightmare as odds can swing wildly in a matter of a few deliveries.
India: Rohit Sharma (captain), KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shubman Gill, Ravindra Jadeja, KS Bharat (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Kuldeep Yadav, Suryakumar Yadav, Umesh Yadav, Jaydev Unadkat, Ishan Kishan (wk).
Australia: Pat Cummins (captain), David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Alex Carey (wk), Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscombe, Nathan Lyon, Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Lance Morris, Mitchell Swepson, Todd Murphy, Josh Hazlewood (unavailable), Cameron Green (unavailable), Mitchell Starc (from 2nd Test).
Match starts: 9:30 am.