History beckons overwhelming favourites India as they face faltering Australia in the fourth and final Test, starting on Thursday in Sydney. Leading 2-1 in the four-match series, India will be looking to make it 3-1 at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) despite serious fitness issues pertaining to their premier spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and senior pacer Ishant Sharma, who has not been named in the 13-member squad for the match. On the other hand Australia, who have never lost a home series against India, go into the fourth Test in danger of being at the receiving end of being the first team to lose a home series to India.
India have played 10 Test series Down Under since 1947-48, and barring three series – 1980-81, 1985-86 and 2003-04 which were drawn – the visitors have lost on seven occasions.
Virat Kohli thus is in a unique position as the only Indian captain to go into the final Test on Australian soil with the cushion of a lead.
A series win in Australia will certainly put Kohli on a different pedestal even though the quality of home team’s batting line-up suffered adversely due to the bans of former skipper Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner.
However, Kohli will need to fret over his team combination as the skipper revealed that senior off-spinner Ashwin hasn’t adequately recovered from his injury despite being named in the preliminary 13-member squad.
With spin considered a traditional factor in any Sydney Test, India have serious concerns over Ashwin’s fitness, as he is yet to recover from left abdominal strain that laid him low after the first Test in Adelaide.
Ishant Sharma is out after experiencing discomfort in his left rib cage and the team management didn’t want to risk him by playing him in the decider. While Ashwin had played on in Nottingham and Southampton (despite a groin injury as revealed by the team management only at the Oval), he has already missed two Tests – in Perth and Melbourne – in the on-going series.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s had two niggles that are quite similar in the last two away tours,” said skipper Kohli.
“He’s very important for sure. In Test cricket, he’s a vital part of this team and we wanted him to be 100 percent fit for a longer period to that he can come back to us in the Test format. He is very disappointed that he’s not able to recover in time,” Kohli elaborated.
In a strange U-turn, after he was ruled out at the time of Kohli’s pre-match press conference, Ashwin has been named in the 13-man shortlist for this fourth Test.
A final decision on his fitness and availability for the match will be taken at toss-time. Additionally, India have included left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav as cover, in case the skipper decides to go in with two spinners.
Surprisingly, Umesh Yadav has been included in the shortlist ahead of Ishant Sharma, along with Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah. At the time of writing, an official word on Ishant Sharma’s fitness – or any injury concerns – is yet to come forth.
Meanwhile, in Rohit Sharma’s absence, out-of-favour opener KL Rahul could be slated for a comeback after missing out in Melbourne, with Hanuma Vihari slotting down to his number six spot.
While they need at least a draw in Sydney to win the series, India will still retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy irrespective of the result and Kohli will join Sourav Ganguly as the only Indian captain of achieving this feat in Australia.
Additionally, one more win will take Kohli ahead of Ganguly, who led India to 11 wins in 28 overseas Tests. Kohli has matched that record in 24 away Tests.
For Australia, batsman Peter Handscomb is expected to make a comeback for Mitchell Marsh, who has come under severe criticism after his poor shot selection in Melbourne.
The other toss-up is between opener Aaron Finch and leg-spin all-rounder Marnus Labuschagne. If Finch is left out, Usman Khawaja will open with Marcus Harris, and Labuschagne slotting in the middle-order.
It remains to be seen if this would solve any of Australia’s batting problems, with not a single batsman scoring a century so far in this Test series.
India (13): Virat Kohli (capt), Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, R Ashwin.
Australia: Tim Paine (capt/wk), Marcus Harris, Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja, Travis Head, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Marnus Labuschagne, Peter Handscomb, Peter Siddle.