Back to the cricket after a week of controversy and change
March 16-20, 2017
Start time 0930 local (0400 GMT)
Is a week a long time in cricket? Not really. Not unless the match is being played on Venus, where a day lasts for nearly eight Earth months and a week would thus drag on for almost five of our years. Probably explains why day-night cricket has never taken off there. Nevertheless, so much has happened since the Bengaluru Test that if it has not been an abnormally long week, it has certainly felt like one.
First, there was the fallout from the DRS drama, where in a self-described "brain fade", Steven Smith looked to Australia's dressing room for advice on whether to ask for a review while batting. Virat Kohli claimed it was not the first time in the match the Australians had done so. Game on. Well, not literally, because by then the game was over. But you get the idea.
If Smith's actions and Kohli's comments had fanned the flames of an international incident, the ICC tried its best to douse them the next day by declaring that it would lay no charges against either man. The ICC's extinguisher was broken. A day later, the BCCI made a complaint to the ICC about Smith's actions. But within hours, that complaint had been withdrawn, and the BCCI and Cricket Australia had released a joint statement to the effect that all parties would move on. Case closed. Or was it? Yes, it was. Really? Yes, probably. For now, at least.
Meanwhile, Australia sent allrounder Mitchell Marsh home. Not because his contributions of 4, 31, 0 and 13, and five overs of medium-pace had been of little consequence, though they had. Marsh was despatched back to Australia due to a shoulder injury that he had been carrying all summer and which affected his bowling. In the words of team physio David Beakley, Marsh "couldn't function at the level required". Physically, that is.
Mitchell Starc was on a plane home shortly afterwards due to a stress fracture in his right foot. Australia had lost the man who scythed through Sri Lanka in a losing squad last year, and who had made key breakthroughs in both Pune and Bengaluru. It also makes this the first Test since Chester-le-Street on the 2013 Ashes tour that Australia will enter without a single Mitchell - unless legspinner Mitch Swepson is called on to fill the quota.
And so Australia's squad gained Marcus Stoinis, an allrounder averaging 17 with the bat this Sheffield Shield season, and Pat Cummins, a fast bowler of immense talent who has just completed his first Sheffield Shield game for nearly six years. They are gut picks from Australia's selectors, who are hoping for no indigestion.
While all this was happening, India had cause to celebrate when Ravindra Jadeja moved up the Test bowling rankings to join his spinning team-mate R Ashwin - the two men now share the title of No.1 bowler in the world. India have also lost a player from their squad, though it is the injured allrounder Hardik Pandya, who has not played in this series in any case. And they are likely to regain opener M Vijay, who missed the Bengaluru Test due to a shoulder injury.
And all of this is without even mentioning the usual speculation over the pitch for the next Test. The Pune pitch was rated "poor" by the ICC, and Bengaluru was "below average". There were claims that Kohli would be allowed to choose which Ranchi surface would be used, though the curator SB Singh later rubbished those suggestions. Photographs of the pitch circulated on Twitter with various disparaging comments from Australian observers, and a report in the Sydney Morning Herald claimed that one Australian called it the most "ridiculous" looking pitch he had seen. Perhaps they thought they were on Venus after all, though they won't expect this match to drag on.
Whatever the case, the week of waiting is over, and the Border-Gavaskar Trophy is potentially up for grabs in Ranchi. Should Australia win the Test, they retain the trophy; if India win, it will be decided in Dharamsala. So, finally, can we have some cricket please?
India: WLWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Virat Kohli has led his team with gusto in this series and their fightback in Bengaluru was admirable. But the one thing Kohli has failed to do so far is make a decent score himself. His batting contributions in this series read: 0, 13, 12 and 15. But this is, after all, a man who has scored four Test double-centuries in the past year alone, so the worrying thing for Australia is that this means there is only room for improvement - and a lot of it.
More than five years after he debuted as a fresh-faced 18-year-old in Johannesburg and won Man-of-the-Match honours, Pat Cummins appears almost certain to add a second Test to his record. Cummins has still only played nine first-class matches in his entire injury-ravaged career, but has been rushed to India after getting through a Sheffield Shield match last week in which he took eight wickets. He is viewed as a potential match-winner and thus seems set to play ahead of Jackson Bird in what could be a trophy-deciding game. It is a gamble, but one whose pay-off could be significant.
India have said M Vijay is fit to play, having missed the second Test with a shoulder injury.* He did not bat for as long as his top-order colleagues in the nets in the two days leading up to the match, but if he does play will become the 29th Indian to feature in 50 Tests. If the pitch looks likely to assist spin in an exaggerated manner, India could bring in Jayant Yadav as a third spinner, possibly at the expense of Karun Nair.
India (possible) 1 KL Rahul, 2 M Vijay, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Karun Nair/Jayant Yadav, 7 Wriddiman Saha (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ravindra Jadeja, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav.
Cummins for Starc looks likely, but it remains a mystery who Australia's selectors will tap to take Mitchell Marsh's place at No.6. Stoinis? Glenn Maxwell? Usman Khawaja? Ashton Agar? They are all feasible options, and the answer might not be known until the morning of the match.
Australia (probable) 1 David Warner, 2 Matt Renshaw, 3 Steven Smith (capt), 4 Shaun Marsh, 5 Peter Handscomb, 6 Glenn Maxwell/Marcus Stoinis/Usman Khawaja/Ashton Agar, 7 Matthew Wade (wk), 8 Steve O'Keefe, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Josh Hazlewood.
Pitch and conditions
The Ranchi pitch has been the subject of much debate over the past few days. The unusually dark colour of the pitch has puzzled the players, with Smith saying it looked like "rolled mud". He expected it to hold up through the course of the first day and break up thereafter, and did not think it would offer a great deal of bounce.
The weather is expected to be warm and dry through the Test match, with afternoon temperatures in the 28-31C range.
Stats and trivia
- This will be Australia's 800th Test
- Ranchi will become the 26th Test venue in India
- Steven Smith needs 76 more runs to reach 5000 in Tests
- Such has been the turnover in players since Cummins' Test debut in 2011 that it is likely Nathan Lyon will be his only remaining team-mate from that match - unless Khawaja is also brought in
"I think so far, throughout this series, our batters have played their spinners better than their batters have played our spinners. So if it's a game of spin versus batters, and the quicks aren't in there quite as much, I certainly think it brings us to an even playing field."
"It has been a very long season for us. Last two games to go, which we want to finish on a positive note. The break [after the Bengaluru Test] was timely for us as a side because we played for so long. We played non-stop. I'm sure everyone enjoyed the break and I'm sure the focus is back on this match and the next match."
*10.30GMT, March 15: The preview was updated after the teams' pressers on the match eve
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale