India have ditched their experienced opening pair and replaced them with two Test novices, while Peter Handscomb has been given the boot by the Australian selectors, as all-rounder Mitchell Marsh has been recalled for the high-pressure Boxing Day Test at the MCG.
With the Test series tantalisingly level at 1-1, the Australian and Indian selectors have made bold moves to strengthen their squads for the key clash at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Batters have been the bugbear for both sides, and the selectors have dropped the axe on players who haven’t pulled their weight with the willow.
India have taken the massive gamble of dropping their experienced opening pair of Murali Vijay (61 Tests) and KL Rahul (33 Tests), although the decision was somewhat forced on them as the pair have been pitiful in banking runs at the top of the order. Their combined tally in the first two Tests has been three runs short of 100, and that failing has placed massive pressure on the Indian middle order.
The inference is that with a more productive opening pair ahead of them, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant could build scores that would severely challenge the Aussie batters. However, to drop both openers in one foul swoop is a huge gamble, especially considering their replacements.
Opening the batting for India in the Boxing Day Test will be debutant Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari, the latter having played in just two Tests, scoring 104 runs with a best score of 56 (although he has scored two 50s in his four innings, both times batting at number six). Having two inexperienced Test cricketers in the cauldron of the MCG on Boxing Day is a massive gamble, but Indian spirit is such that the team will be behind their new openers, who will be eager to impress.
Rohit Sharma has also been recalled after sitting out at Perth, while Ravindra Jadeja is back, as Ravichandran Ashwin is not enjoying full fitness after some injury niggles, leaving India with a four-man bowling attack. Paceman Umesh Yadav steps aside for Jadeja after his ordinary display at Perth.
In many ways the Indian side represents the perfect balance for a Test side, especially with wicketkeeper Pant being so dangerous with the bat, and they will be good to watch. If the ball bounces right for them they will be strong contenders to beat Australia handsomely, but failure will alert the conservatives to push back for a five-man bowling attack.
‘Seeing the pitch now, it has much more grass than it had last time. I hope that it’s a lively pitch. I hope that it does as much as it did in the first two games, because as a side you know you’re always in for a result that way,’ said Indian captain Kohli at a press conference.
‘The surface, what I saw yesterday looked pretty dry underneath. There’s a good coverage of grass which should keep the surface intact. I think it should have enough for the bowlers to be interested on all days of the Test match, and hopefully it’s a much more lively wicket than the last time we played here.’
India name Playing XI for 3rd Test: Virat Kohli (C), Ajinkya Rahane (VC), Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (WK), Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah #TeamIndia #AUSvIND pic.twitter.com/DImj8BVTj5
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 24, 2018
Australia’s decision to drop Handscomb comes as a result of his struggles against the strong Indian bowling, which restricted him to scores of just 34, 14, 7 and 13 in the first two Tests.
‘It’s a long series, our bowlers have had a really big workload and we feel we’re going to need Mitch’s bowling at some point. I’m sure Pete would be upset. I think he’s had conversations with the selectors that there are a few things they would like him to work on and Pete is open to that,’ said Australian skipper Tim Paine.
‘Pete at his best is going to score a lot of Test runs, and not just his batting, he brings a hell of a lot to our side in terms of his fielding, his experience and just the way he generally goes about his cricket. We’re sure he’ll score a lot more runs for Australia.
‘We believe Mitch can come in and do a really good job with the bat, and obviously he’ll give great support to our bowlers,’ added Paine
Tim Paine (captain)
Virat Kohli (captain)
Photo: Will Russell – CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images