India team members’ potential bubble breach at a Melbourne restaurant on January 1 could create a possible headache for the management ahead of the third Test in Sydney.
The five players involved in the incident – Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Prithvi Shaw and Navdeep Saini – have been placed under isolation as a precautionary measure for now. In a worst-case scenario, they could be quarantined for two weeks which would make them unavailable for selection for the Sydney Test. While it is still unclear if there will be any such forced changes, the potential scenario could hamper team India’s balance significantly with the series evenly poised at 1-1.
Overall, there are still enough options to choose from, but a few major issues could turn out be the difference between a series win and loss. Here’s a look at the major talking points in India’s team selection if the five players are ruled out ahead of the SCG Test.
The opening woes
While Shubman Gill’s effort in the second Test almost makes him an automatic pick, Mayank Agarwal’s poor run presents a case for Rohit Sharma replacing him at the top. Now, if Gill and Rohit are unavailable, Agarwal would find a different, but familiar batting partner in KL Rahul, with whom he has batted together plenty of times for Karnataka and Kings XI Punjab. It would become India’s third opening combination in as many Tests – not ideal by any means against the quality of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Hazlewood.
On a positive side, it would be a great opportunity for Rahul to reinstate his case in the Test setup and his phenomenal run over the last 18 months promises a lot. What’s more, the new beginning would come at a venue where he had registered his maiden Test hundred six years ago.
Another possibility could be Hanuma Vihari partnering Mayank at the top, as the case during India’s last tour in 2018/19. But Vihari’s success in the middle-order in domestic cricket and during India’s tour of the Caribbean last year makes that unlikely.
The Saha-Pant conundrum
It’s been a much-debated topic ever since the start of the series – the experience of Saha versus the flamboyance of Pant. While Saha’s inclusion in the pink-ball Test was on expected lines given his superior ‘keeping skills, his batting failure prompted a change in Melbourne.
Pant’s influence was clearly felt in India’s first innings, where he was involved in a mini-partnership with his skipper that almost nullified any chances of Australia’s comeback. His presence above an in-form Ravindra Jadeja makes India’s lower middle-order a formidable one, but if he misses out after the possible breach on New Year’s, it’ll be over to Saha next week.
The SCG track, usually known for its relatively slow nature might actually suit Saha’s batting. That said, it’ll be on Saha to grab the chance and be selective with his stroke-making. His poor shot selection in the first over of the second day in Adelaide raised eyebrows and eventually resulted in a dramatic lower-order collapse.
The new-look, raw pace attack
It’s been one of the stories of the tour – a continual sequence of injuries to premier fast bowlers. India came to Australia without the services of Ishant Sharma, currently their most experienced quick. Then, during that one hour of play in Adelaide, a blow on the forearm ruled Mohammed Shami out of the series, before Umesh Yadav, who showed great consistency with the new ball in his first three outings with the ball, sustained a strain in his left calf muscle during Australia’s second innings in Melbourne.
In his most recent Test, Bhuvneshwar, then aged 27, was the Player of the Match in an India win at Johannesburg.@Aadya_Wisden on the recent travails of Bhuvneshwar, who averages 26.09 with the ball in Test cricket and turns 31 in February.https://t.co/by26pdy68c
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) December 31, 2020
Navdeep Saini, part of the five-member group in the potential bubble breach, could’ve been a like-for-like replacement for Umesh. However, his possible unavailability could now make way for T Natarajan to make a Test debut. Natarajan, for all his recent white-ball success, is a popular choice, and would also add left-arm variety to the bowling attack. But India also have Shardul Thakur in their ranks, an experienced campaigner in domestic cricket. He might have more to offer, especially with the new ball in Yadav’s absence. His six first-class fifties and a highest score of 87 could add a bit more teeth to the otherwise weak lower order.
Here’s how the playing XI could look like, if the five players do miss out:
Probable XI for India
Ajinkya Rahane (c)
T Natarajan/Shardul Thakur