The stakes cannot get any higher than this. India and Australia are currently level 1-1 in the four-match series. For the first time since India’s tour of Australia in 2003/04, there is plenty at stake in a Boxing Day Test match. India’s 31-run win in Adelaide was cancelled by the 146-run win by Australia in Perth. Virat Kohli’s side is aiming to break a 37-year jinx in Boxing Day Tests in Melbourne. A win will take India one step closer to achieving glory while a loss will squander their ultimate opportunity to register a series win Down Under against what is considered to be the ‘weakest’ Australian side. Ahead of the Test, the Indian cricket team is resting and will not practice until December 23. However, Kohli can utilize the time to figure out a major issue in his team.
The performances of the Indian openers have been a major issue in overseas tours right from the series against England. KL Rahul and Murali Vijay’s struggles in Adelaide and Perth have resulted in calls for them to be excluded for the Boxing Day Test. With Hardik Pandya back in the mix following his solid returns in the Ranji Trophy, the bowling composition might also be tweaked slightly after the formula of four pacers backfired on the Indian team in Perth. Kohli would be hoping that Ravichandran Ashwin regains fitness as India was sorely missing a spinner in Perth.
What can be ideal XI?
With Vijay and Rahul not performing to expectations, Kohli might replace both openers and bring in Hanuma Vihari at the top of the order and fast-track Mayank Agarwal as the second opener. Agarwal, who scored over 2000 domestic runs in the 2017/18 season and was incredibly unlucky to miss out on Test selection for the West Indies series, gets a chance only because Prithvi Shaw was ruled out. Agarwal was in decent form for India A in the New Zealand series, scoring a solid 65 and 42 in the four-day game and scoring 25 and 53 against Gujarat in Surat.
Vihari showed good application against the new ball in the Perth game and having him as an opener might not be a bad idea. If both openers can play out the new ball period and score runs at a decent rate, say in about three runs per over, then it will become easier for the middle order. With Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli hitting centuries, numbers 3 and 4 are sorted.
Big contributions from Rahane, two all-rounders
Ajinkya Rahane slammed fifties in both Adelaide and Perth but he was guilty of not converting them into big scores. Rahane’s dismissal on the first over of the third day in Perth stalled India’s momentum big time. If Rahane can score big, then the lower-middle order can receive a big boost. Rishabh Pant has taken the attack to the opposition but has thrown his wickets away. If Pant bats calmly, India’s batting will be enhanced.
The question of Hardik Pandya is a tricky one. Should Kohli get Pandya back in the side without giving him proper exposure to the conditions in Australia? Should Kohli trust Pandya’s fitness after just one first-class game? Pandya can offer depth in both bowling and batting and his inclusion could resolve plenty of problems for India.
India must play a spinner in Melbourne where conditions and the pitch will be very different than Perth. If Ashwin is not fit, then getting Ravindra Jadeja in will be the next best option. Jadeja’s batting is also a welcome bonus. Thus, if Pandya and Jadeja are included in the side, then India can play eight batsmen and also play five bowlers at the same time. Thus, India’s tail, which was too long in Perth, might be eliminated.
So, the ideal combination for India in Melbourne would be to promote Vihari and Agarwal as openers, play Pandya and Jadeja to enhance both batting and bowling and play three pacers.
Playing XI for Melbourne Test
Hanuma Vihari, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja/Ravichandran Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah.