Let's face it, India have not been a generous host as yet. They reduced the visitors, Australia, to a three-day defeat in the opening fixture in Nagpur, by an innings and 132 runs. They bundled them out for 177 and 91, making the pitch look like a minefield. But when they had to bat themselves, Rohit Sharma just strolled to a quality hundred. Batting at seven and nine, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel added 154 runs between them. Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin took 15 wickets between them for only 160 runs. It felt like India were playing with cheat codes while assuming a relentless avatar.
To add further, Australia’s request to the ground staff not to water the pitch so that they could practice on a scuffed-up Nagpur track on what was supposed to be Day 4 fell on deaf ears.
The question now is, how will the visitors disable those cheat codes and stage a recovery. It is not like the playing conditions are going to improve in Delhi. The Arun Jaitley stadium is likely to offer conditions similar to Nagpur. Some of the Australian batters have started bowling off-breaks in the nets - Matt Renshaw, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne and even DAVID WARNER.
What will be Australia’s combination? They have quite a few options with Mitchell Starc and Cameron Green expected to return but will need to zero-in on one. Australia still have time to make a comeback but they need to act immediately.
Meanwhile, India have little to worry about. If anything, they will relish the return of Shreyas Iyer who seems to be in good shape as the Delhi Test is approaching.
Things to watch out for
> Australia’s XI has already become a topic of discussion, nearly replacing the pitch talks in the build-up. They surprised many by benching Travis Head. Despite averaging only 21.3 in 11 Test innings in Asia, the left-hander is deemed set to walk in the side. The question is whom does he replace?
How will Green come in? Does Warner deserve a long rope in conditions where he has averaged only 22.2 in 18 innings?
The only way Mitchell Starc can be back, if match fit, is in place of Scott Boland who was impressive in the first Test. And do Australia need a left-arm spinner in Ashton Agar or Matthew Kuhnemann? They do but how do they bring him in? Options; either drop Nathan Lyon, their GOAT, or Todd Murphy, the youngster who snaffled seven wickets on debut in Nagpur. Head’s inclusion will add a part-time option but another off-spinner. And India possess six right-handers in the top seven. And do they have too many left-handers in their batting line-up?
The questions are plenty for Australia. All eyes will be on the toss tomorrow where Pat Cummins will announce the team changes.
> Shreyas Iyer is available for selection again. The head coach Rahul Dravid has already mentioned that Iyer will walk back if he is match fit.
Amidst batters from the current squad, Iyer has the highest strike-rate in Tests since 2021 - 65.1. It is vital for India given he adds the attacking flair in otherwise less proactive batters around him, especially in Rishabh Pant’s absence. Since 2021, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have all batted under a strike-rate of 45. Rohit Sharma and Jadeja have gone at 50.2 and 50 respectively. While Rohit is free-flowing on his good days, Jadeja is a slow starter.
Iyer likes to belt spin. Off-spinners are his favorable match-up - average 142, strike-rate 77.2.
> Steve Smith has mentioned that there is a specific need to attack the Indian spinners in order to survive on these pitches. If Australia take his words, how they fare will be interesting to see. Smith will have to show the way himself. He had the lowest false-shot percentage for an Australian batter in Nagpur (13.2%) while also playing a few captivating strokes down the ground. That intent is also how he staged the Pune Test win for Australia in 2017.
Pitch and conditions
The challenge for Australia in Delhi is expected to be stiffer if not the same. Spinners bowl a lot more in Delhi. In four Tests since 2010, spinners have delivered 61.8% of the total overs bowled. Hence, they have struck in a heavy proportion too, pouching 66.9% of the wickets.
Off-spinners have the highest percentage of wickets at 36.6% while left-arm orthodox spinners have the best bowling average at 21.7. Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja will be licking their lips. Ashwin is responsible for 27 of the 48 wickets for off-spinners in these four Tests. Nathan Lyon also picked nine wickets when he played his only Test in the capital city back in 2013. Thus, another Test with spinners in charge is on the cards.
> Left-arm spin holds a lot of significance against India. Both Pujara and Kohli have a grim record against the bowling type - Pujara averages 27.8 against left-arm orthodox spinners since 2021, Kohli 28. Pujara has also been troubled by pace in the form of balls coming in. He averages only 25.5 with 13 dismissals against those deliveries since 2021.
> Expect Australia to hide their spinners when Iyer is batting. Especially if they are off-spinners, Iyer is absolutely brilliant against them. Instead, Australia should be bowling a lot of pace at Iyer and try to bounce him out. Pat Cummins will be the ideal candidate to do that. For Iyer, if he gets past his spell, he will set himself for a grand knock. The right-hander averages only 28 against balls pitched short or in the back-of-a-length area.
> Alex Carey played 29 balls of spin in Nagpur. He played 18 sweep strokes on them. He scored plenty of runs but also got out twice. However, Carey has said he won’t shift from his modus operandi. Ashwin will again target his stumps, trying to bowl him behind his legs or trap him lbw.
If Iyer is match fit, he will reclaim his number five spot, with Suryakumar Yadav making way for him. The rest of the XI should look the same.
Rohit Sharma ( c ), KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Ravindra Jadeja, KS Bharat (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Mohammad Shami, Mohammed Siraj
Australia’s XI is a tough one to call. There is a good chance that at the moment of writing this, even the Aussies are unaware of their best XI. Firstly, it is subjected to the fitness of Starc and Green. And then it boils down to which combination they are comfortable with. Travis Head, however, is likely to come in. There is no surprise even if he is picked as an opener.
David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Peter Handscomb/Matt Renshaw/Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Mitchell Starc/Scott Boland, Pat Cummins ( c ), Nathan Lyon, Todd Murphy