So where do Australia go from here? Indore, of course, but in a more philosophical, soul-searching and series situation kind of way. Not surprisingly, 32 of their 40 wickets have fallen to spin so far, and 21 out of those 32 were either bowled or lbw. “Use your feet against the spinners,” they were told, and they went on the back foot a bit too much to be trapped in front or bowled. “Sweep the spinners,” they were told, and they swept a bit too much in Delhi, especially down the wrong line when the balls were straighter, according to Matthew Hayden. Where do they go now?
Apart from bad luck in the form of injuries to Mitchell Starc and Cameron Green – who both should play the third Test – Australia also made things worse for themselves with their selection calls. The decision to leave out an in-form Travis Head for the first Test led to much debate, and the way they brought Ashton Agar over as their second best spinner after a wicketless Sydney Test, only to send him back from Delhi was nothing less than bizarre.
They can’t get their hands on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy but they can still level the series, although the last stop is Ahmedabad, which could dish out the most spin-friendly track of the series. Remember the last Test there in 2021, when England lasted about 130 overs there combined in an innings defat? Focusing on Indore for now, with a boost in the form of Starc’s return – he averages nearly 33 in India with the bat – would be Australia’s mantra.
Their bowlers, especially spinners, haven’t had as many issues. Todd Murphy grabbed seven on debut in Nagpur and Matthew Kuhnemann impressed in phases in Delhi while trapping local man Virat Kohli with an arm ball. Pat Cummins is still in Australia for family reasons, but Starc taking his place and Steven Smith leading the side won’t be much of an issue for them. Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, and even Peter Handscomb, after his promising 72* in Delhi, will lead the batting line-up for the face-off against India’s spin trio.
India have to neither worry about injuries nor their tactics. With the pitch likely to behave like the Nagpur and Delhi tracks with grass in the middle and bald patches at the ends, India just need to make sure their batters score well more than the counterparts and the spinners do the rest. In terms of form, all signs for now indicate that Shubman Gill will come in for KL Rahul, who didn’t turn out in the Indore nets in the optional nets session.
For the WTC qualifications, India have more than a foot in the final but can still technically lose out if they don’t win the last two Tests and Sri Lanka manage to beat New Zealand 2-0. Similarly for Australia, they won’t make the final if they lose 4-0 and Sri Lanka win 2-0.
India WWWWL (last five matches, most recent first) Australia LLDWW
In the spotlight: Mitchell Starc and India’s search for top-order stability
There were talks that Mitchell Starc could have played in Delhi too, but without looking back now, he’ll be pumped to take the ball in Indore, even if he’s not 100%. The finger injury on his bowling hand hasn’t healed yet, he said on Monday, yet he’s ready to go at “full tilt” having been in such situations before. His footmarks could also come in handy for Nathan Lyon, and for the Indian spinners as well. Despite an unimpressive bowling record in India, averaging over 50he is hoping his pace and angles will trouble the India batters and his presence in the XI in his first game this year will surely bolster the team morale, with both bat and ball, in a bid to keep the series alive.
India’s last century partnership for the opening stand was way back in December 2021 in Centurion when Karnataka team-mates KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal had put on 117. While the pitches in subsequent series for India may not all have been batting friendly, India do need a stable pair at the top given their average for opening pairs is among the worst since the beginning of 2022. Assuming Shubman Gill opens in Indore, India will hope he and now-fit and in-form captain Rohit Sharma can provide the consistency and stability India need at the top for the WTC final India are likely to make, and the away Tests in the West Indies and South Africa later in the year.
Team news: KL Rahul out?
India could bring in Shubman Gill in place of KL Rahul, who has also lost his vice-captaincy for the rest of the series. While Gill is in red-hot form after three centuries and a double-century in his last seven white-ball games, Rahul has scored just 38 from three innings this series. Otherwise India have no reasons to change the XI.
India (probable): 1 Rohit Sharma (capt), 2 KL Rahul/Shubman Gill, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Shreyas Iyer, 6 Ravindra Jadeja, 7 KS Bharat (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Axar Patel, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Mohammed Siraj
David Warner is back home. Josh Hazlewood has gone home. Cummins is yet to come back. Australia do have reinforcements for them, and stand-in captain Smith said on Tuesday they could play an extra batter, with Green as one of the four bowlers, or even another quick bowler in Scott Boland or Lance Morris by possibly leaving out Matthew Kuhnemann. They’re keeping their options open until Wednesday morning.
Australia (possible): 1 Travis Head, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Peter Handscomb, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Todd Murphy, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Matthew Kuhnemann/Scott Boland/Lance Morris
Pitch and conditions
Even though the two Tests that have been played in Indore – against New Zealand in 2016 and Bangladesh in 2019 – had something for the seamers on the first couple of days before taking some turn, Wednesday morning will probably serve up another turner, perhaps not a rank turner. The pitch had grass only in the middle, and some of it had been trimmed as compared to Monday. The bald ends were dry according to Smith, around the six-metre mark. The temperatures are expected to stay in the early 30s in the afternoon, and will be more pleasant before and after.
Stats and trivia
Australia’s left-hand batters have fared far worse than India’s so far in the series. Their 242 runs have come at an average of 11.52 with 21 dismissals, while India’s left-hand batters have scored 254 while averaging 63.50 with four dismissals.
India’s right-had batters, on the other hand, have done much worse than their own left-hand batters. The right-hand batters have scored 497 runs, averaging 24.85.
While Australia’s spinners have impressed in different phases across the two Tests to average a tad above 30 for their 20 wickets, their quicks Cummins and Boland haven’t lived up to their expectations at all. They average 51 for their three wickets compared to India’s quicks’ average of 20.12.
“It can happen to us as well, not just them. I was talking to Rahul (Dravid) bhai the other day, and I said, in Nagpur I played close to 200 balls, and I never felt that I was set, because when you’re playing on pitches like that, it just takes one ball to probably grip a little more than you expect, or just one ball to keep low, and you’re out. On pitches like this, you’re never in, and it’s the same for us as well. What happened to them can happen to us as well.” India captain Rohit Sharma says turning pitches could undo India’s batters just as easily as they did Australia’s in Nagpur and Delhi
“I think starting your innings is as tough as anywhere in the world here in India. We know if you get in, you’ve got to make it count.” Australia captain Steven Smith
With stats inputs from S Rajesh
Vishal Dikshit is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo