After two months of keeping a nation and a half guessing about when he would be better, and what a tennis elbow really was, Sachin Tendulkar is fit enough to play cricket. Going into the third Test against Australia at Nagpur, the Indians suddenly have a selection conundrum that stems from his return. Tendulkar simply must be accomodated. On the eve of the match Sourav Ganguly said, "Ajit Agarkar will play. Parthiv Patel will not open. We are considering either Yuvraj Singh or Aakash Chopra as the opening partner with Sehwag." This virtually means Mohammad Kaif is out of contention despite his fighting 64 at Chennai. There were also question-marks over the availability of Harbhajan Singh, who was down with viral fever on the eve of the match and was rated only a 50% chance of playing. If he is ruled out, Murali Kartik will come into the side.
Australia, for their part, have brought Brett Lee back into the fray, including him in the 12 in place of Nathan Hauritz. But Adam Gilchrist stressed that the playing XI was far from decided, and that a final inspection of the pitch on the morning of the match will have a role to play.
The pitch does have some grass on it, but quite clearly it has not been watered in days and should be fairly brown by the time the first ball is bowled. The curator insists this will be a sporting pitch, and Gilchrist called it an Australian kind of wicket, but there's every chance it will become more Indian in the hours to come. Ganguly had called the curator from Kolkata before this Test, and requested that the authorities prepare a pitch that would favour the spinners. "But nothing much seems to have been done about that," he said, nervous smile plastered across his face. And nothing much can be done at this stage, for the grass can merely be trimmed, not shorn. This means that that there's little chance that this strip will crumble even later in the game.
That should suit Tendulkar just fine. He had a longish stint in the nets, and certainly did not hold back. Batting first in a net where only the spinners operated, he clouted several balls far and wide into the stands. Then, when he took on the quicker men, the punch - off front and back foot - sent the ball thudding back past the bowlers. "Even if I've scored two hundred in the last two Tests, there's still pressure," said Tendulkar in an interview recently, countering the assertion that his comeback to top-flight cricket after approximately two months makes it extra hard. He could make all the difference to the outcome of this game, but the Australians aren't wasting their time wondering.
Gilchrist knows that his team is better prepared, man for man, than any Australian team that has toured India since Bill Lawry's series-winning team in 1969-70. Glenn McGrath has proved an extremely effective force in India - his record here in six Tests is better than his career average - and is well set to ensure this series is no different. He went wicketless in Chennai - only the fifth time in his near-100 Test career - and will bend his aged Narromine back over to make sure he sets the house in order in his 100th Test: he has never gone wicketless in successive matches.
But this India-Australia series has refused to be defined by individuals or individual contests. The fact that rains denied India the chance to level this series in Chennai, with 210 runs to score, ten wickets in hand, and on a pitch that had eased out, makes this game all the more vital. This is a venue where teams usually resign themselves to a high-scoring draw. But neither of these teams likes draws, or resigns, so the script could yet be an original one.
India (probable) 1 Yuvraj Singh, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Sourav Ganguly (capt), 7 Parthiv Patel (wk), 8 Ajit Agarkar, 9 Anil Kumble, 10 Harbhajan Singh/ Murali Kartik, 11 Zaheer Khan.
Australia (probable) 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Justin Langer, 3 Simon Katich, 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Darren Lehmann, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Adam Gilchrist (capt & wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Jason Gillespie, 10 Michael Kasprowicz, 11 Glenn McGrath.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.