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Sanjay Manjrekar

Should Agarwal open at the MCG? Or Vihari?

What can India do to go up 2-1? First, they need to pick an XI that makes sense

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
One thing certain about this Indian team, led by Virat Kohli, is that they will walk out onto the MCG as if they are 2-0 up in the series. That's an admirable quality about this team. There is no better example of this than the final Test in South Africa early this year, at the Wanderers, where they played on a treacherous pitch as if their lives depended on it to win the match after being 2-0 down.
In recent times, the drop-in pitch in Melbourne has been flat, although there is some talk that they are planning to put some "Perth kind" of life in it at the end of the season. This is easier said than done.
For Asian batsmen, no overseas pitch is flat, so the Indians should only expect it to be less spiteful than the Perth pitch and not docile. In the past, lively pitches overseas provided hope for India, because their benign bowling would get a much needed boost, and their batting, being better than it is today, could handle the lively conditions well enough.
A less potent MCG pitch would be a timely boon for this Indian team, considering their batting issues, and if they play their three in-form seamers and one spinner, their attack would still be able to take 20 wickets off this not-so-strong Australian batting line-up on it.
So what can India do tactically to go 2-1 up in the series?
First, pick an XI that makes sense. This team management has developed a trait of picking XIs that baffle not just a few but everyone. Picking four seamers was a blunder in Perth, and the choice of the fourth seamer was another.
There is a good chance they will pick one spinner in Melbourne. I would not risk playing R Ashwin, considering the recent experience in England, when he was picked when presumably not 100% fit, and possibly cost India the Test in Southampton.
Indian cricket has had many instances of middle-order batsmen being asked to open in Tests for the first time in their careers and being successful. Virender Sehwag is the most obvious name here.
Whether it was Ashwin's fitness or his skills that made him less effective than Moeen Ali is up for debate but one concern that is emerging for me is that this is the second overseas series in a row that where Ashwin has become unfit in the middle of the series. This does not happen when he is playing in India. Is it because to be a force overseas, he is forced to bowl differently and his body is unaccustomed to this and strained beyond its limit?
Be that as it may, Ravindra Jadeja, who is not far behind Ashwin when it comes to taking wickets, would be my choice, given that these days more than the main surface it is the roughs that are deciding the fate of Test matches (remember Moeen in Southampton and Nathan Lyon generally?) Jadeja's bowling style is naturally suited to exploiting roughs, and with at least five right-arm fast bowlers in total in both teams, there will always be a nice bit of rough for him to use outside the left-handers' off stump - and Australia have a few left-handers.
Now to addressing the two extremities of Indian batting, the head and the tail.
Don't worry about the tail so much, I say. Tailenders are not supposed to get runs; they are supposed to get wickets - and this Indian bunch are doing a pretty good job of it. Yes, there is their weakness of not being able to clean up opposition tails, but that can be corrected if they look at the data the pitch maps throw up. Indian seamers bowl differently to tailenders than they do to proper, top-order batsmen.
They get too eager to decimate the tail and so bowl varying lengths, failing to create sustained pressure, like they do when bowling to top-order batsmen, where they bowl mostly in the good-length area, with the odd short or full ball. A greater percentage of short balls were bowled to tailenders than to top-order batsmen, and guess what, tailenders got out less to the short ball than the fancied batsmen did.
In the era since helmets came into the game, tailenders are decidedly different. They aren't scared of fast bowling, and so, not easy prey to bouncers or a bouncer followed by a yorker. The Indian bowlers must respect this and bowl mostly like they do to the top six.
Now to the biggest issue of all, the Indian openers.
Giving him a break would be the best thing to do - for him too. If India still play him they can cite the example of Keaton Jennings of England to justify the selection.
M Vijay is fortunate that Prithvi Shaw is unfit; this might just give him another lifeline, another Test. He got a good-looking 20 in the second innings in Perth, and looked assured against pace before getting out playing a bad shot to Lyon.
India have no choice but to clutch at straws when selecting their openers.
With the mountain of runs he is scoring at the first-class level, coinciding with the failures of the existing openers, everyone agrees that Mayank Agarwal deserves a chance in the Indian team. My thought is: on Australian pitches, against the hard Kookaburra ball, is it fair to throw a young talent in as an opener with no practice games under his belt? Also in India's long history of Tests, there is not much evidence of front-line batsmen having made their debuts in Australia; there must be a reason for that.
Hanuma Vihari has not set the stage on fire but he has batted decently in his two overseas Tests, and every time he has batted he has looked more a No. 1, 2 or 3 batsman to me than a No. 6.
Indian cricket has had many instances of middle-order batsmen being asked to open in Tests for the first time in their careers and being successful. Virender Sehwag is the most obvious name here.
When national selectors want an opener they obviously look at openers from the domestic level. When I played domestic cricket I would cringe looking at the temperament and technique of many domestic openers. They were openers because they chose to be openers, not because they were suited to it. I am not saying Agarwal is not an opener by choice and temperament, but there is the option of having him bat in the nets a lot till his instincts become somewhat Australian, and then maybe introduce him to Test cricket in the final Test. If it was a Test match in India, it would be a no-brainer to play him straightaway.
This all comes into the domain of planning, of course. Execution is a another matter, and if India do that a little better than they did in Perth, they can bounce back in the series, considering Australia's own batting frailties. As I have said before, this series is going to be a lot of fun, for we have two teams living in glass houses.
My India XI for Melbourne: 1 M Vijay, 2 Hanuma Vihari, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rohit Sharma, 7 Rishabh Pant (wk), 8 Ravindra Jadeja, 9 Ishant Sharma, 10 Jasprit Bumrah, 11 Mohammad Shami

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. @sanjaymanjrekar