With rare upper hand in Australia, India in selection dilemma for SCG Test
Does Virat Kohli turn to R Ashwin in Rohit Sharma's absence? © AFP

After the spectacular fireworks that left nearly a million on-site onlookers in awe – like it does without fail every year – Sydney woke up lazily on a quiet Tuesday to usher in the New Year. The roads didn’t exactly wear a deserted look, but clearly, Sydney-siders were sleeping away the after-effects of a long night of revelry.

The Indian and Australian teams also took the day off, choosing to rest and recuperate from the rigours of an arduous series ahead of the final Test, starting at the SCG on January 3. There is so much topping off of skills that can be achieved at a practice session. Especially given the workloads bowlers from both sides have had to endure, it is important for them to rest up and slip into optimal physical and mental space ahead of a match that will decide the outcome of this series, even if the destination of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy is a foregone conclusion. (ALSO READ: After MCG jubilation, spare a thought for how great 2018 could have been for Indian cricket)

Seldom have India been so dominant in Australia. Not even in 2003-04, when they generally had the better of the exchanges against Steve Waugh’s unit, did they possess this aura of intimidation. Much of the reason for that must be laid at the doorstep of the Jasprit Bumrah-led pace bowling unit. Virat Kohli has been the world’s best batsman for a while now, and when he confesses he is happy not having to face Bumrah in a Test match situation, nothing more needs to said, really.

virat kohli
Virat Kohli obliges fans after India’s win in Melbourne (AFP Photo)

India haven’t been in this position in Australia before, 2-1 ahead with one to play. The 137-run victory at the MCG was significant in more ways than one. Apart from the obvious denouement, the retention of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and giving India the chance to shut Australia out in the final Test, it showcased the resilience of the playing group that had been put in its place in Perth in the second game. In the immediacy of the Perth hammering, there was neither panic nor a hang-dog attitude within the group. India knew they had been outclassed in reasonably Australian conditions, but they were also aware that 146 runs, the margin of Australia’s victory, was hardly illustrative of the relative strengths of the two teams. (ALSO READ: A year of missed opportunities for India ends with promise)

Indian outfits in the past might have beaten themselves up after Perth. Under Kohli, this team seems to possess the ability to put the previous result behind it, and especially when it is a defeat. Melbourne was a grand victory well worthy of celebration, but because it came in less-than-Australian circumstances, it was accompanied by a whine from Tim Paine, the man Rishabh Pant cheekily calls Australia’s ‘temporary captain’.

Paine complained about rolling out Indian-type pitches to the visitors, arguing that there was little chance of a green-top being laid out for the Australians in India. Of course, there was Nagpur in 2004 which Paine obviously doesn’t remember, as well as the strip in Dharamsala’s maiden Test in 2017 that had juice for the entire duration of the Test match, but why should fact come in the way of a good story?

“That’s been the one disappointing thing,” Paine said after Melbourne, perhaps temporarily opting to forget the ‘other disappointing thing’, Australia’s inept batting. “It seems we’ve rolled up some wickets here in Australia that have taken away from our strengths, which is pace and bounce. You’d like the slips to come into play eventually.”

Bumrah and his Indian counterparts did bring the slips into play, and even on the final day, Pat Cummins’ brilliantly defiant resistance only ended with a catch at first slip. But Australia are certainly rattled, looking for excuses for defeats in their own backyard and already keeping one or two ready in case of an encore in Sydney.

Jasprit Bumrah claimed career-best figures of 6/33
Jasprit Bumrah claimed career-best figures of 6/33. © AFP

“I think the Sydney wicket, from what we’re hearing, might spin a little bit,” he went on. “I’m sure India will be looking forward to it. You never go to India and get served up green wickets. And they’ve come out here and we’ve served some wickets up that have really suited them.” And, just for the record, it is an Indian paceman that is leading the wicket-taking charts, ahead of an Australian spinner who is occupying the No. 2 position.

If Paine’s reading of the Sydney surface is accurate, India might be tempted to bring in R Ashwin to fill the breach created by Rohit Sharma’s absence at No. 6. Rohit having flown home to be with his wife after the birth of their first child has opened up the genuine prospect of a fifth specialist bowler and a second specialist spinner. Already, Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami have bowled a little over 350 overs in the three Tests, most of them played under sunny, harsh skies. Ashwin can link up with Jadeja to provide another quality spin option while ensuring that, given his comfort levels while batting in overseas conditions, there is no loss of batting resources.

There are other options the management can consider. Such as bringing in Hardik Pandya for his first Test since England, though he has only played one first-class game  in the last four months and offers a fourth seam option that might be redundant at the SCG. Or playing Russian Roulette with Hanuma Vihari by shunting him back down to No. 6, and bringing back either Murali Vijay or KL Rahul.

Fanciful as either of those two moves might be, Ashwin for Rohit looks the most logical and prudent step. There is no guarantee though that that will happen; Kohli, as he shown so often, is pretty much a fan of the left-field call.