Australia v India, 4th Test, Sydney January 2, 2019

India make Ashwin U-turn, Ishant left out

Virat Kohli and R Ashwin are elated after Usman Khawaja's dismissal © Getty Images

Two hours after India's spokesperson declared that R Ashwin was unfit for the Sydney Test, the offspinner was included in the 13 named for the series finale. That was not the only surprise: Ishant Sharma wasn't included in the 13. Umesh Yadav was roped in as his replacement. Ishant experienced some left rib-cage discomfort and the team management did not want to risk him during this Test, with a spokesman saying he was "currently being assessed".

Left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav has found a place too, while KL Rahul returned in place of Rohit Sharma, who has flown back home to attend to his wife and newborn daughter. This means India are not entertaining any thoughts of playing Hardik Pandya, the allrounder flown in after the Perth defeat.

Most intriguing is Ashwin's case. The selection U-turn comes two Tests after India named Ravindra Jadeja in the 13 before revealing, after the match had ended, that he hadn't been fully fit. This time Ashwin was declared unfit before being included in the 13. Not only did the media manager announce that he had been ruled out, India's captain Virat Kohli went on to lament his absence, in particular since his injury - a side strain - was similar to the one that troubled him during India's tour of England last year.

When Kohli spoke, it was assumed Ashwin was going to miss his fifth Test out of 12 that India have played away from home since January 2018.

"Well, it's unfortunate that he has had two niggles quite similar in the last couple of away tours," Kohli said. "That's obviously him, more than anyone else, who will be focused to correct. The physio and the trainer have spoken to him in terms of what's required in order to get over that injury.

"He is very important for sure. In Test cricket he is a vital part of this team, and we want him to be 100% fit and for a longer period so that he can contribute to us more in the Test format. He is very disappointed with the fact that he has not been able to recover in time, but the things have been laid out to him (as to) what needs to be done to get back to full fitness. Honestly, you can't predict an injury, when it happens you just manage and doing what he can to get over that injury."

Kohli even went on to suggest that Hanuma Vihari's part-time offspin would ensure India would not miss Ashwin too much. "I think it [Ashwin's absence] does make you alter your plans a little bit throughout the course of a series," Kohli said. "But the fact that Vihari has bowled beautifully whenever we've given him the ball makes us feel absolutely calm about Ashwin not being able to play.

"It is obviously a disappointment for us as a team and for him personally, but if you see the way Vihari has bowled he has looked like picking up a wicket whenever he comes to bowl. He's pitching the ball in the right areas so we are looking at him as a solid bowling option right now. Especially in this Test because he has pace on the ball, he puts in the effort and he's economical and that's all you need from a guy who is coming in to bowl 10-15 overs in a day."

Two hours later, though, Ashwin was named in the 13-man squad with a rider that a final call would be taken on the morning of the Test. It is not yet clear whether Ashwin was drafted in at the last moment to bring some experience in the absence of Ishant. In fact it wouldn't have been surprising if Mohammed Shami had been left out: he came to the ground wearing a jacket, and didn't train at all. There were fears that Shami might be unwell, but Ishant's absence came as a surprise.

That India are giving him until the last moment is a sign of how important Ashwin is. In Adelaide he played a big part in setting up the win, not just with the six wickets but also first-innings runs in a crisis situation. Yet it has been almost a month since Ashwin developed this "left-sided abdominal strain", which leads to questions if Ashwin's fitness issues are a concern. Kohli's answer revealed he sees his injury in England and this one in the same category.

Meanwhile, Rahul is set to join his good friend and Karnataka team-mate Mayank Agarwal at the top of the order, with Vihari going back to No. 6. Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Jadeja seem like certainties with the last spot to be contested by Ashwin, Umesh and Kuldeep.

Virat Kohli brushed off fears that recurring back spasms would hinder his career © AFP

One person whose fitness is not a cause for concern despite persistent back problems is Kohli himself. He struggled with his back when he batted long in Melbourne, and towards the end started playing more shots than he usually does.

Kohli revealed he has been fighting with his back for the last seven years, and that he is quite adept at managing it. "I've had disc issues since 2011, it's nothing new," Kohli said of the discomfort in Melbourne. "I've been able to manage it because of the physical effort I have put in in the last few years. When you have a back that has disc issues you can only maintain it. That way so I'm not too bothered by it.

"When the workload gets too much it can get into a spasm. You don't really get serious issues, you get fine in two-three days but at that point of time you get into a spasm. That's very easy to heal so I'm not too concerned with it. You just have to manage it physically and stay ahead of the injury. I've been able to do it for now, and I'm sure I'll find out more options and more ways to counter that and be at the top of my fitness. It's impossible to keep going on without niggles, and I think it's fine to have a few niggles here and there. You just need to be able to manage it very well."

Kohli's own fitness and training, he said, helped him switch between formats so easily. "The physical part has definitely helped me massively in the last three years," Kohli said. "I feel like I can switch formats easily and be at the top of my energy levels or intensity levels that is required to play international cricket. Because I work really hard no my fitness. There are many factors involved: the diet, the sleep patterns and all these sort of things are very crucial. But above all of that I believe in backing my technical ability to score in all formats."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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