Burns to debut, India mull over combination
There could be two batsmen making their debuts at the Boxing Day Test. Australia have confirmed Queensland's Joe Burns will be handed a baggy green on Friday, and that he will bat at No. 6. Over in the India nets, Karnataka opener KL Rahul has been getting a lot of attention and time from the coaches.
For the first two Tests, Rahul got to bat only towards the end of the net sessions. M Vijay, India's successful opener this year, has not spent too much time in the nets in Melbourne, but MS Dhoni said that was part of his method: to take it easy on the eve of a Test. In any case, Rahul, at least, seems to be on standby for Boxing Day.
Australia, as usual, were more certain about their XI ahead of the match. Shaun Marsh and Shane Watson, who were both hit during training, have been cleared fit. Watson will continue batting at No. 3 despite his lack of runs since Australia need his bowling in Mitchell Marsh's absence. Shaun Marsh will play at No. 5. The bigger change is the comeback of Ryan Harris, who replaces Mitchell Starc.
"Joe Burns gets his opportunity on Boxing Day and it's going to be a very special week for him," Steven Smith, the Australia captain, said. "Yes, it is a big occasion. You've got to try to get that out of your mind. You've got to enjoy it. It's just another cricket game for him. He's been hitting the ball really well. I'm looking forward to seeing him come out here and hopefully score a few runs in this Test match."
Smith said losing Marsh was a blow, but added Watson had recovered from being struck on the helmet and was ready to fill in.
"It is tough," Smith said. "Mitch Marsh has been playing some pretty good cricket. He played beautifully over in the UAE, and was starting to find his feet. It's disappointing for him to be out through injury.
"Watto's okay. He was a little bit shaken up with the hit the other day, but he trained well yesterday and he's going well so I'm sure he'll be fine. I've just got to manage him right. If we've got to go in to bat, I've got to make sure he hasn't bowled too many overs at the end there so he's fresh when he gets out there to bat. That's the most important thing to me. I certainly think he's a top-three batsman."
It isn't all doom and gloom for Starc either. "He'll go back and play a bit of Big Bash and keep his loads up," Smith said. "You never know [when his next opportunity may come]. Three back-to-back Test matches is pretty heavy on our fast bowlers so we might see him back in the team next week."
India, as usual, were cryptic about their composition. There are three spots open from how the nets have gone since Brisbane. They have been desperate to get Bhuvneshwar Kumar back because he provides swing and runs down the order, but he might not make it. He bowled in the nets yesterday with his ankle strapped, but the four bowlers who played at the Gabba trained in the main ground, which might be an indication that Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and R Ashwin are going to be retained.
"He [Bhuvneshwar] has started bowling, he bowled during nets in the last Test also, but we want to load him with a bit more with bowling," Dhoni said. "But as far as his fitness is concerned he is fit and also available for selection. But Test-match fitness is slightly different, you may be fit but you have to see five days of load, how many overs you can bowl, what the situation maybe. You actually prepare for the worst when it comes to fitness in Test cricket."
Rahul and Suresh Raina court the two other possible spots and have gradually increased the time spent and attention received at training. Vijay has been sporadic, which could or could not mean a fitness issue, India wouldn't clarify. Rohit Sharma has scored 81 runs in four innings, and has been guilty of soft dismissals. Raina can also provide a few overs when Dhoni is waiting for the new ball and when the fast bowlers are exhausted.
"He has been working hard on his cricket and we will reflect once he gets a game," Dhoni said of Raina. "We need a player like him, reason being apart from being a good batsman he is also a good bowler, so if there is some turn he can bowl a bit. He is someone who can bowl quite consistently. He can give me those 10-15 overs if it is really needed. So that's one area where we have been lacking in this set-up. There are not many batsmen who actually bowl. So we are trying to get batsmen to bowl so we can give a bit of rest needed for fast bowlers."
The other big development has been Rahul's emergence as a contender. He was among the first few into the nets and among the last to finish on Wednesday. He had long chats with Ravi Shastri and Duncan Fletcher during changeovers, and Virat Kohli gave him throwdowns and tips too. There are no guarantees with India, though. So keep an eye out on those early morning warm-ups.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo