India will clash with Australia in the crucial third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) from the 7th of January. With the series tied at 1-1, both the teams would want to pick their best possible XI to make use of the conditions at the SCG and take early ascendancy in the Test. India’s injury list continues to get longer with the latest victim being KL Rahul who has been ruled out of the series with a sprained left wrist. With Rohit Sharma set to return to the team as a vice-captain, we look at the ideal XI India should field at the SCG in the order they should bat.
Agarwal to be Dropped, Vihari as Opener & Rohit at Number 5
This may seem like an outlandish idea but it is a very practical one and has been used before in the recent past by India. But before we get to the why and how of that let us get Mayank Agarwal out of the way. Overall, the attacking opener has had a great start to his Test career and ideally should be given a longer rope. He has scored 1005 runs in 13 Tests at an average of 47.85 with 3 hundred and 4 fifties. The problem is Agarwal’s recent form and his technique and temperament which has got exposed in Australia.
Agarwal scored 7 and 3 in Christchurch, 17 and 9 in Adelaide, and 0 and 5 in Melbourne. The maximum number of deliveries he faced in any of these 6 innings was 40. His bat was stuck behind his front foot in the first innings while he remained stuck in the crease in the second as Trent Boult got him leg before wicket twice in Christchurch. His problem with the delivery that swings in late also exposed his defense as Mitchell Starc trapped him plumb in front of the wickets in Melbourne. Pat Cummins got one to go through between the bat and pad and castle the stumps in Adelaide. Agarwal has two problems against the new ball. He cannot counter the late swing and is getting stuck on the crease. Secondly, he is tentative outside the off stump and is fishing to play the deliveries leading to his downfall. There is a very high chance that he will be dropped from the line-up in Sydney.
With Shubman Gill impressing one and all with his fine debut at the MCG (45 and 35 not out), the question remains who will partner him at the SCG. This would have been a no brainer till about a year back with Rohit Sharma the obvious answer. But it is a little tricky in a post-Covid world where quarantine and bio-secure bubbles are the norm. Rohit Sharma had a great 2019. Apart from the record he set in the World Cup in England, he also excelled in his new avatar in Test cricket – as an opener. He scored 556 runs in 5 Tests (6 innings) at an average of 92.66 and strike rate of 75.95 with 3 hundreds in the calendar year 2019!
There are two concerns though. All these runs came at home in India where the wickets are vastly different to those in Australia. With due respect to the South African pace attack, they are no match to the trio of Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc in their own backyard. Rohit has never played in the specialist role of an opener outside India – the demands of which are unique and challenging. Secondly, Rohit last played a Test in November 2019, hasn’t played a practice match on the tour in Australia and will be drafted into the XI at the SCG after a 14-day quarantine in Sydney.
Thus, if common sense prevails, Rohit will not be ‘sacrificed’ opening the innings for India in Sydney. Purely based on his away record and technique and style of play and the conditions and quality of the Australian pace attack, the probability that he will succeed in his first Test after such a long break is very low. Yes, in the long run, India might want Rohit to do a Sehwag in Test cricket, even in overseas conditions, but the Sydney Test is not an opportune time for that.
Rohit is a class batsman who can win you matches in any format as not only does he score big but does so at a very quick rate. Thus, the best position for him at the SCG would be number 5 when the ball is old and the wicket is not doing much. This would also help him bat with the lower order and tail and Rohit has the ability to hit the boundaries and accelerate if the need arises – in low-scoring matches where the bowlers are on top batsmen like Rohit can change the course of a match with a quick fifty in the middle order.
If Rohit bats at number 5, then Hanuma Vihari will have to be used as an opener. This may seem unfair to the batsman but cricket is not an individual sport and tough calls have to be made keeping in mind the larger interest of the team and the best winning combination. Vihari has a solid defense, good technique and excellent temperament. He cannot do at number 5 what Rohit can or what a VVS did – ie he cannot score quick runs against a quality attack. Thus, a batsman like Vihari is wasted in the middle order especially overseas. On the other hand, he has the ability to see off the new ball, frustrate the bowlers and play out time and overs opening the innings in trying conditions – the proof of which he already gave in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG in 2018. Vihari scored 8 and 13 in the two innings but more importantly faced 66 and 45 deliveries and was only dismissed in the 19th and 13th overs of the innings thus ensuring that Pujara and the middle order were not exposed to the new ball. India went on to win the Test and history was made thereafter!
The Team Formation
Ajinkya Rahane, the stand-in-captain broke the tradition and recent trend of playing with 6+1+4 formation overseas as was preferred by Virat Kohli. Instead, India went in with a more attacking 5+1+5 formation in Melbourne playing 5 specialist bowlers – two spinners in R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja and the pace unit comprising Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Siraj. And it worked! The all-rounder, Jadeja delivered with the bat and ball and took a great catch in the outfield while Siraj had a fine debut with the ball.
There is no reason that the formation will be changed for Sydney after the splendid win at the MCG. The only puzzle that remains unsolved then is the identity of the 5th bowler.
Saini Has Pace But Thakur Brings in Experience and Work-Horse Rigour
While a lot of experts and pundits believe that Navdeep Saini should play as the third seamer due to his ability to consistently bowl at 140 kms per hour, the experience of the work-horse, Shardul Thakur might be a better option for India. He has picked 206 wickets in 62 first-class matches at an average of 28.55 and strike rate of 54.1. Thakur has been a regular for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy and was their leading wicket-taker in 2015-16 playing the pivotal role with the ball as his team lifted their 41st trophy. Known for bowling long spells, Thakur also has the ability to swing the new ball and is a very handy lower-order batsman – significant as the Indian tail has a poor record overseas and the contribution from the lower-order can be the difference between the two sides.
So, this is what an ideal Indian XI would be for the SCG Test:
1) Shubman Gill
2) Hanuma Vihari
3) Cheteshwar Pujara
4) Ajinkya Rahane (c)
5) Rohit Sharma
6) Rishabh Pant (wk)
7) Ravindra Jadeja
8) R Ashwin
9) Shardul Thakur
10) Mohammed Siraj
11) Jasprit Bumrah