India-Australia Third Test Preview - Meltdown In The Middle

India-Australia Third Test Preview - Meltdown In The Middle
India-Australia Third Test Preview - Meltdown In The Middle
©REUTERS / Action Images

India v Australia
Third Test, Mohali, 16th-20th March
Preview by Chetan Narula
odds: India 11/10, Draw 11/8, Australia 5/1

A week is a long time in cricket. Eight days ago, Australia had suffered an embarrassing defeat in Hyderabad, coming on the heels of a loss at Chennai. They hadn't learnt their lessons, staring at the score line reading 2-0.

The visitors got busy immediately after that decimation. They practiced on a day four pitch, immediately after the Test finished. While the Indian team and most of the media entourage prepared to leave the city, the Aussies got around, practicing again on a day five Hyderabad pitch.

They were putting in the hard miles, trying to turn things around.

Michael Clarke's chief grouse was that the lessons learnt in the first Test were squandered. He expected a response from the team and not just in the nets. You could feel that they wanted do everything to bounce back, for that is how Australian cricket is played. With passion and attitude, their nerve is unwavering, even though it was conspicuous by its absence at times in Hyderabad. They needed to look deep within to re-ignite that fire.

Perhaps they pushed themselves too hard. How else do you explain this meltdown over the weekend? Four players sacked from the third Test, among them their one proper all-rounder, their best bowler in this series so far and a shoe-in replacement in the third Test for the struggling Phil Hughes. The phrase 'shooting oneself in the foot' has been exceeded here.

The bottom line of this saga is simple. The four players did not respect team orders, that too at a moment on the tour when things were falling apart. They did not consider the authority of the coach who put them to work on their respective mindset and as part of a squad, asked for their inputs. There is no room for doubt herein that some sort of punishment was warranted.

Yet this word 'punishment' is the very basis of argument, which is about the quantum of sentence deserved. Isn’t it a bit harsh to destruct your own team this way? Three players stay on but Shane Watson has returned home mid-tour and is contemplating his Test career.

What does this say about James Pattinson, Usman Khwaja and Mitchell Johnson? Most importantly, how does this shape morale in the Aussie dressing room, ahead of two must-win Test matches?

Mickey Arthur could have opted for a more lenient sentences, at least for this Mohali Test, and if the series would have been lost 3-0, they could have wielded the axe for Delhi. Or, they could have completely postponed it until they were back home, with a slap on the wrists sufficing for now. What happens on the field is most important, but off-field events have taken centre stage in the build-up.

Australia now have a 13-man pool to pick their 11 from. In other words, they will play two pacers and their other attacking options will come from all-rounders. Steve Smith might get a game, if batting is considered too light with Watson gone and Matthew Wade injured.

Brad Haddin playing means Michael Clarke will definitely bat up the order this time, but whther he bats at number three remains to be seen. If Khawaja had played, then it would have made some sense, but with Phil Hughes back in contention, Clarke will probably settle for number four. Any which way, it is a serious riddle ahead of the toss.

For India, it means a heady dosage of laughter at their opposition's expense. The tables have been reversed since England came visiting and the hosts have been made to look strong by the insipid Australian display. Considering the shambles they are in, Mahednra Singh Dhoni and his men will be hoping to inflict a 4-0 thrashing, something the Indian team has never achieved.

But the Indians do have their own problems as well, though nowhere as worrisome in comparison. Their composition is more or less decided, and with Mohali supporting a little more bounce on a not-so-dry pitch, they will continue to pursue the five-bowler theory.

If Australia had not been handicapped by the sacking and played three quicks, maybe Dhoni would have been tempted to play an extra batsman. As things stand though, Ajinkya Rahane will have to wait for his Test debut (Cheteshwar Pujara has been declared fit after a knee injury scare), while Shikhar Dhawan will get his first Test cap.

Many expected Gautam Gambhir to come back in place of Virender Sehwag, but for once, the selectors and team think-tank have shown the wherewithal to peep into the future, deciding that blooding a new opener is important as India don't play another Test until their tour of South Africa later in the year.

Gambhir's comeback is a topic for another day. Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Harbhajan Singh once again, as he returns to his home ground under immense pressure. This is his second comeback this season, a record of sorts, and like the England series, this hasn’t gone well either. The only respite for him is that the selectors have picked the squad for both the remaining Tests and as such, he cannot be dropped.

He can be dropped from the team though, but home turf, left-handed Australian batsmen and the hope of him turning a corner will still keep him ahead of Pragyan Ojha for the moment. It is a pity really, that in this horses-for-courses approach, India's best spinner in recent months is yet to play a Test in 2013.

© Cricket World 2013

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Fixtures & Results

10th October: T20I, Rajkot
IND 202-4 beat AUS 201-7 by 6 wickets
13th October: 1st ODI, Pune
AUS 304-8 beat IND 232 by 72 runs
16th October: 2nd ODI, Jaipur
IND 362-1 beat AUS 359-5 by 9 wickets
19th October: 3rd ODI, Mohali
AUS 304-6 beat IND 303-9 by 4 wickets
23rd October: 4th ODI, Ranchi
AUS 295-8 v IND 27-0 - match abandoned, rain
26th October: 5th ODI, Cuttack
Match abandoned - waterlogged pitch
30th October: 6th ODI, Nagpur
IND 351-4 beat AUS 350-5 by 6 wickets