Stage set for a fascinating finale
On a more even pitch in Ahmedabad, the final Test promises a fierce battle between India, coming off a rare home defeat, and rejuvenated Australia.
After three games of uneven battles and surfaces, the Motera ground promises a more balanced pitch, raising expectations of another fierce contest in the finale of this fascinating rivalry for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy during the fourth Test at Narendra Modi Stadium starting on Thursday.
The batters can, therefore, breathe a bit easy. A typical subcontinent pitch generally offers spinners help but hardly from the first morning. They come into play as the game goes on, and such wickets have produced many India versus Australia classics. Fresh in memory are the 1998 Test at Chennai when Sachin Tendulkar’s 177 helped India recover from a first innings deficit, the 2001 comeback epic at Eden Gardens, the enthralling 2004 draw in the Chennai Test, the 2010 one-wicket win at Mohali and the dramatic series finish at Dharamasala in 2017.
In all these Tests, a spinner working his magic over a long spell and the batter counter-attacking with superb strokeplay on a pitch offering value for shots made for captivating viewing.
The fourth Test of this series is set up nicely. Their primary aims achieved, the two sides can now look to play freely. After winning the third Test in Indore, Australia clinched their spot in the World Test Championship (WTC) final. On paper while India need to win the fourth Test to seal their spot for the title clash, they too know they are all but through.
Only Sri Lanka have a chance of displacing them. However, for that the Lankans have the unenviable task of blanking New Zealand in New Zealand in the two-Test series. Stranger things have happened in cricket but Sri Lanka beating the Kiwis at home will rank among the biggest upsets; of the 19 Tests Sri Lanka have played in New Zealand, they have won just two and none in the last six.
No wonder Australia’s ace spinner Nathan Lyon chose to stick his neck out. “No disrespect to Sri Lanka, (but) I think it will be India (in the WTC final). In my head I am already thinking at the Oval, it is going to be a different experience to play the final in foreign conditions for both teams,” Lyon said in a podcast with Cricket Australia’s official website after the Indore Test.
Focus on Kohli & Co.
Having suffered through the series on low-scoring pitches, the deck here has brightened the batters’ mood. “Looks like probably of the four wickets we've seen so far, potentially the flattest on Day One,” said Australia's stand-in captain Steve Smith.
"On these wickets that we're playing on, 70s and 80s are winning you games of cricket. This one might be a little bit different; it might be that someone needs to make a bigger score and the par score might go from 200-250 to 450-500. I'm not sure, we'll wait and see," he added.
Batters have been under intense pressure coming into the game. Playing on rank turners has affected their performances and statistics, but this Test does provide the last opportunity to make amends. Except for captain Rohit Sharma, the rest have been unable to cope with the vicious tracks. Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Cheteshwar Pujara, Shubman Gill, KL Rahul and KS Bharat have all looked a troubled lot.
Feeling the maximum heat is Kohli, averaging 22.20 in the three Tests so far coming off another below-par Bangladesh series. The contribution of Iyer, averaging 10.50, has been restricted to a cameo in the first innings in Indore. Young opener Gill failed in both the innings in the only game he played in the third Test. He had replaced Rahul, who lost his place after low scores in all the three innings he played to average 12.66. Pujara crafted a skillful fifty in his last innings at Indore but is still searching for a big one.
Even if the surface turns out to be challenging for batting, the batters have to adapt and find a way to get runs in the first innings. In Indore, India couldn’t recover after being bundled out for 109 in their first essay. Sudden collapses have been the theme of this series. Matches have been lost owing to one bad session.
Dravid highlighted the point in his press conference when talking about the corrections required from the third Test. “I think both areas (departments) from the last game. If you see 109 in the first innings was a little less. If we had got 60-70 more runs it could have been good. We also gave away quite a few runs in the first innings in those conditions. Looking at these conditions, we've been playing good cricket, especially in those first two Tests. We'll have to repeat that,” said Dravid.
Find your method
Rohit said it was about batters finding their own methods to get runs. The India captain has been the highest scorer this series with 207 runs in five innings, including a century in the opening game in Nagpur.
Talking about how he approaches his innings, Rohit said, “When you are playing on these kinds of pitches, you have to stay slightly ahead of the bowler. Before he does anything, you are ready with what you want to do. It should be that kind of mindset. I am just talking about me and not anyone else,” he said.
The opener felt it more mental than skills. “It's mentally how you prepare yourself, how you want to tackle the opposition bowlers and what they're throwing at you. You've got to find a way to score runs whatever the pitches you play on. Every individual is different and they'll find their own methods of scoring runs. You can't change a lot of things in a span of three weeks. You just need to change your mindset.”
After running through the India line-up at Indore, Lyon will be the main threat. He is a different bowler to India’s R Ashwin. While Ashwin preys on the batters with his variations, changes in trajectory and angles, Lyon builds the pressure by hitting the same length and imparting big turn. The India captain said putting the Aussie off his length is the key against him.
“When the bowler is trying to bowl in one area, you’ve got to try and do something different, and not allow the bowler to bowl in one spot,” said Rohit.
“When the pitch is playing nice, then it’s your call, your strength. Some guys are okay to play 70-80 balls for not many runs, but some guys will not allow certain guys to bowl in certain areas. So it depends on different individuals as well, as to what they want to do and how they want to counter that plan.”