Flawed teams face festive Test
December 26-30, 2014, Melbourne
Start time 1030 local (1130 GMT)
Depending on who you ask, Australia have so far been either slightly fortunate or exceptionally resourceful, and India either lacking in luck or deficient in perseverance. What this divergence of opinion says is that the current margin of 2-0 obscures greater complexities in the two sides and where they currently sit. The hosts have leaned heavily on their nascent captain Steven Smith and brazen opener David Warner, while Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Johnson have taken turns with the ball. Shane Watson and Brad Haddin have been doing much of the leaning, while Michael Clarke will be in Melbourne as a commentator rather than captain.
India have shown promise, only to break it at critical times. Virat Kohli and M Vijay have been exceptional with the bat and Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara intermittently useful. But there have still been enough batting collapses to keep victory out of reach. Similarly, the bowlers have shown signs of unsettling Australia, but seldom have they done so with the new ball or against the tail. The looming inclusion of Bhuvneshwar Kumar may help add some solidity here. A fraying of Indian patience, evident through Brisbane fracas over practice pitches and food, must be scotched by MS Dhoni.
The third character in the drama this week will be the MCG, its cavernous expanses and idiosyncratic pitch likely to offer chances to both sides and most disciplines. This was the venue where India came closest to unseating Australia in 2011-12 - they looked good for a vast first innings lead until Peter Siddle burst through Sachin Tendulkar's attempted drive on the second evening. But it is 33 years since India won a Test at the MCG, and the Australian will to dominate the biggest day of their cricket calendar is invariably strong.
In the spotlight
Coming up to the 10th anniversary of his Test debut, Shane Watson returns to the MCG, his most productive ground by a distance. This is just as well, because Watson's recent struggles and the emergence of Mitchell Marsh have made questions about his value more pertinent than ever. It is conceivable that a quiet match in Melbourne could see Watson tipped out of the Test team for Sydney, should Marsh be fit and Joe Burns make a productive start. So there will be plenty of eyes on Watson over the next five days.
As Ricky Ponting has pointed out, MS Dhoni has a vexing task on his hands to stave off feelings of frustration and irritation among his tourists in unfamiliar parts of the world. He has of course become familiar with these issues on previous tours, but as India develops a team that might be capable of winning away from home sooner rather than later, attitude is all important. A more specific job Dhoni must undertake in Melbourne is to try to coax more runs from India's tail. For all the feats of M Vijay and Virat Kohli thus far, a lack of lower order support has allowed Australia to keep ahead.
Alongside the debutant Joe Burns, Ryan Harris is also set to return in place of Mitchell Starc. David Warner has shrugged off a badly bruised thumb and has also been spotted reviving his leg breaks in the nets. Shaun Marsh is also fine after a knock in training.
Australia (probable) 1 Chris Rogers, 2 David Warner, 3 Shane Watson, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Shaun Marsh, 6 Joe Burns, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Ryan Harris, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar is fit again and KL Rahul and Suresh Raina are pushing hard, but India look likely to retain the attack.
India (probable) 1 M Vijay, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rohit Sharma, 7 MS Dhoni (capt,wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar/Varun Aaron, 10 Umesh Yadav, 11 Ishant Sharma.
Pitch and conditions
Melbourne's drop-in pitch will offer some early seam movement before drying out and likely offering assistance for reverse swing through its abrasive surface. Weather for the week is forecast to be moderate.
Stats and trivia
- Joe Burns will be Australia's fifth debutant in 2014, following Alex Doolan, Mitch Marsh, Steve O'Keefe and Josh Hazlewood.
- India's last win against Australia at the MCG took place in February 1981. Defending a target of 143, Karsan Ghavri, Dilip Doshi and Kapil Dev razed Greg Chappell's side for a mere 83.
- With 323 runs in two Tests, M Vijay is more than halfway to Rahul Dravid's series aggregate record for an Indian batsman in Australia - 619 in the four Tests of 2003-04.
"Four-nil would be nice, but you got to take each game as it comes."
"What's more important is to play good cricket and I feel we are doing that. But we are not crossing the line, which is vital in five days of Test cricket. We feel we are close, but at the same time it will have to reflect in our performance."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig