Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
In a year of near misses, in their own words, India enter their last big Test without their No. 1 spinner, R Ashwin. He injured himself on the fourth evening of the Adelaide Test, aggravated it on the fifth, and was not fit for the Perth Test. He is yet to be a 100%, but he continues to stay with the team in hope that he is fit for the Sydney Test where spin might play a bigger role.
This is the fourth Test Ashwin is missing out of the 11 India have played away from home this year. It points both to India's horses-for-courses policy, and Ashwin's issues with injuries. He was left out of the Johannesburg Test because India wanted to go with four quicks, then played in Southampton when not fully fit and was subsequently left out of The Oval Test, a dead rubber, with a groin strain. Here in Australia, he wouldn't have played in Perth even if he had been fit because captain Virat Kohli said he wanted to play four quicks anyway.
In away Tests this year, Ashwin has averaged over 30 and has gone at 2.38 runs an over. He is one of the three bowlers to have bowled over 300 overs in away matches this year. Overall, Ashwin has been the biggest match-winner in this XI; in conditions outside Asia and the West Indies, he slots just behind Kohli and the fast bowlers. He is especially effective against Australia considering the number of left-hand batsmen in their batting line-up. It is not just the overs he has put in, but runs down the order too that India will miss. His partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara was crucial to the win in Adelaide.
India began the year with anticipation built around a pace attack that promised much and was bolstered further by the introduction of Jasprit Bumrah into the mix. Ashwin was also expected to play a big part in keeping them fresh and chipping in whenever the pitch gave him an opening. It is a job he has done more or less, except in Southampton when India risked him despite lack of full fitness.
India have lost the two other big series this year. If they lose the next Test, they will not be able to win this one either. They go into this match with two new openers - one of them makeshift - and without their main spinner. In the absence of KL Rahul, they will also have to rejig their slip cordon, with Kohli possibly moving to the gun position, second slip, and Rohit Sharma slotting into the third. Pujara should continue at first slip.