And then, it was down to just the one. An inexperienced, youthful Australia had come to India in late February for a four-match Test series full of hope. Their Test team, sans Ricky Ponting, had whitewashed Sri Lanka at home earlier in the year, and had all but erased memories of a discouraging loss to South Africa back last December. When they arrived on Indian shores, they were without another batting stalwart in Michael Hussey — who, like Pointing, had hung up his gloves following the end of Australia’s last home summer of cricket. It was a young side, true, but thought to be competent enough to put up a fight in the trying sub-continent conditions.
A new dawn, they said in the newsprint across the island nation. Under their flamboyant new captain, Michael Clarke, the sky was the limit for this young Aussie team. A grueling tour to India had perhaps failed to produce the intimidation it would have earlier warranted, given the Indians’ surrender of their fortress of spin to England late last year. It was considered a stepping stone for the upcoming back-to-back Ashes legs, and as former Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar succinctly noted in the commentary box, it was always all about the Ashes. The India series — a small detour on the way to the Old Blighty in July.
However, Clarke’s men had the ground beneath them whisked away faster than Usain Bolt’s 100-metre sprint, as they fell into a deep abyss. The freefall that started at Chennai hasn’t abated going into the final Test at Delhi. MS Dhoni and his men, going through a torrid last 20 months, brushed aside all inhibitions against their rivals and thumped them in all three matches in four days (and a few hours more in Chennai). From the looks of it, the thud that would emanate at the Feroz Shah Kotla at the end of the final Test would resonate across the Indian capital.
The build-up to the fourth Test has been dominated by team selection from both sides. While the hosts would be pondering over Murali Vijay’s opening partner, following the withdrawal of Shikhar Dhawan from a hand injury, the Australian camp could be without the talismanic Clarke, who is suffering from a sore back. In what is a remarkable example of a reversal of fortune, vice-captain Shane Watson could turn up for the toss on Friday morning alongside Dhoni. Yes, the same Watson who was axed from the team for the third Test for being a disobedient little boy at school. The Australian team is demonstrating a unified front to the outside world, with Clarke claiming to have let bygones be bygones and given Watson’s captaincy credentials the thumbs up. Yes, the same guy who Clarke himself banished to the corner of the classroom. The irony is clearly lost on the Australian team.
In another bewildering decision from the tourists’ camp, Mitchell Starc, a bowler by trade, who scored a career-best 99 at Mohali to somewhat lessen Australia’s humiliation, was withdrawn from the team and packed off home to undergo surgery on his troublesome ankle. However, coach Mickey Arthur later revealed that Starc could indeed have played the fourth Test before being operated on. So, why the hurry, then? Let’s have Arthur answer that for you: “He could have continued playing but we want to take a proactive approach in managing Mitch to have him fit for the Ashes series in England.” Your witness.
This would, in turn, mean that Mitchell Johnson, another one of the infamous four, could get a game in Delhi. With the Kotla pitch promising to be another turner, both teams would go in with at least two spinners. However, it is the batting line-ups which have various permutations and combinations possible.
India have replaced the opener Dhawan with middle-order bat Suresh Raina in the squad. While they do have another opener, Ajinkya Rahane, in their ranks, speculation is rife as to whether the Mumbai lad will get his first Test cap in Delhi, the other choice being playing Cheteshwar Pujara up the order. In such a case, it’s your pick between Rahane and Raina as to who will slot in at No 6.
As for Australia, if Clarke does not regain match fitness in time for the Test, the choice is pretty simple for Arthur — play Watson in place of the 31-year-old. However, the catch-22 would arise for the under-pressure coach if Clarke okays himself for the match. Where would Watson fit in, then? It would be extremely unfair on Phil Hughes and, especially, on Steven Smith if either of them is made the sacrificial roo, after a strong outing with the bat in Mohali.
This tour has never ceased to toss up bombshells right from the start. Predicting the outcome at Delhi really seems to be an unproductive task. So, why not just sit back, relax and wait for Friday morning. For what it’s worth, here are the two probable playing XIs:
India (probable): Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni (c & wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha.
Australia (probable): David Warner, Ed Cowan, Michael Clarke (c), Phil Hughes, Steven Smith, Brad Haddin (wk), Moises Henriques, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Lyon, Xavier Doherty.
Time: 09.30 local
First Published: March 21, 2013, 4:45 pm