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Five questions the decisive Sydney Test will finally answer

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Roar Rookie
2nd January, 2019
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India retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with a 137-run victory over Australia at the MCG last week, but there’s still one Test remaining to decide the series.

The hosts were outplayed in every department yet found a hero in Patrick Cummins. He put up stiff resistance to take the game into the final day. He was also one of the best players of the match.

The action now moves to Sydney, where the last Test of this series will be played between 3 and 7 January. India are certain to make a change in their playing XI, with Rohit Sharma flying back for family commitments. With the inclusion of Marnus Labuschagne in the squad, Australia look likely to tweak their line-up as well.

As India look to create history with their first-ever series win on Australian soil and as Australia try to maintain the status quo, here are a few pertinent questions going into the SCG Test.

Will Australia make any changes to their playing XI?

This is one of the more testing periods for Australian men’s cricket team. Sandpaper-gate has understandably caused concerns.

For the first time since 1991-92 no Australian has scored a Test century in home Test summer so far. Most importantly their batsmen have failed to complement the side’s often stunning bowling performances.

Questions are being raised about Australia’s batting order. However, a cull should not be expected. While inconsistency has been a botheration, only Aaron Finch and Mitchell Marsh are under serious pressure to retain their places.

Marsh had a wicketless Test at the G and just 19 runs across two innings. On the other hand, Finch failed on his home turf, with eight in the first innings and three in second. In fact he has scored only 278 runs in ten Test career innings so far at 27.8 with two half-centuries.

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The Sydney pitch traditionally suits spin, and spin all-rounder Marnus Labuschagne is expected to feature in the team. It will be interesting to see whose place he takes.

Finch, Australia’s limited-overs captain, is a very talented player. However, he has failed to make a Test spot his. Former opener Michael Slater deemed him not fit for a Test role after the MCG performance. Mitchell Marsh seems to be on a borrowed time as well. He replaced Peter Handscomb for the Melbourne Test but failed to stamp his authority. He was booed by home fans in Melbourne and is a prime contender to face the chop.

A fact that certainly helps Marsh’s cause is his ability to bowl. While he didn’t get a wicket at Melbourne, his 26 overs helped Tim Paine manage the workload of his bowlers. He was also Australia’s most economical bowler in the first innings. Aaron Finch doesn’t offer Paine the same luxury, though he also bowled two overs at MCG.

Some murmurs suggest that neither will play, but without Sheffield Shield action, Handscomb’s Big Bash exploits are unlikely to be enough to warrant a place at Sydney.

Labuschagne is certain to play. It must be seen if he plays in place of Marsh or Finch.

If Finch indeed plays, another question is whether he will open. According to his state side, Victoria, Finch is better suited in the middle order in Test cricket, when the ball gets old. His performances in this series highlight this. Australia may want to demote Finch into the middle order and open with Usman Khawaja, who averages a whopping 113.25 as an opener in Tests. That way Australia can also bring more solidity to their middle order.

Labuschagne

(Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Will Australian batting finally complement their bowlers?

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Australian bowlers have troubled Indians more than once in this series. Mitchell Starc is yet to reach his full stride and Josh Hazlewood has impressed.

However, Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins have been the picks of the lot. Lyon is the second highest wicket-taker, taking 17 wickets in this series, while Cummins is joint third with 14. Starc has 12 and Hazlewood has 11.

India’s highest score of this series has been 7-443 declared and its lowest has been 8-106 declared. In recent years, when batsmen typically score big, Australian bowlers have done their job to contain a talented Indian batting line-up.

However, it’s Australia’s batting that has failed to complement their bowling effort. Finch, Marcus Harris, Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Handscomb, Mitchell Marsh and Tim Paine have scored 1089 runs among them, roughly 182 runs every innings by seven of these eight. On the other hand, numbers eight to 11, – Cummins, Starc, Lyon and Hazlewood – have scored 339 runs among them, thus adding around 57 runs every innings on average.

By comparison India’s first seven have scored an average 228 runs every innings, while eight to 11 have managed just around ten runs every innings. These stats don’t count extras.

Australian bowlers, with both bat and ball, have ensured that the Indian team never runs away with a match. They have taken 54 wickets among them and have been more than handy with the bat.

If Australia want to win in Sydney and draw the series, their batsmen must support their bowlers and deliver a complete performance.

Aaron Finch

(Daniel Kalisz – CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)

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Hardik Pandya, Ravi Ashwin or Kuldeep Yadav – who will replace Rohit?

India are certain to make a change to their winning side. Rohit Sharma flew to Mumbai to celebrate the birth of his first child. He will only return on 8 January. India have three players ready to compete for one position: Hardik Pandya, Ravi Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav.

Hardik Pandya’s return to the squad was a welcome one for India after the Perth debacle. Crucial in the Indian scheme of things, Pandya is a quality cricketer. Having just recovered from a lengthy bout of injury, Pandya was not fast-tracked into the Indian team for the Melbourne Test. He is also a capable batsman. In 11 matches Hardik has scored at just under 32, with a century and four 50s.

Ravi Ashwin was valuable when India won in Adelaide. He bowled around 87 economical overs for six wickets. More importantly, he let Virat Kohli balance the workload of Indian seamers in the scorching Adelaide heat. Ashwin also contributed with the bat, scoring 25 priceless runs and contributing to a 62-run partnership when India languished at 6-127. His services were thoroughly missed at Perth.

Kuldeep Yadav is yet to play a match in this series. However, in his limited Test opportunities so far he has impressed. More importantly, the Australians could not pick him in the T20 series in November last year. His economy rate was six or less in every match, and he also picked up four wickets in those matches.

It seems more likely that Hardik or Ashwin will feature at Sydney. Rohit Sharma is a quality batsman. Still unable to reach his potential in Tests, his knock of an unbeaten 63 was solid as India scored around 450 in Melbourne. His absence means that India will be without a good batsman.

Pandya’s batting, better than Ashwin’s or Kuldeep’s, can be decisive in him making it to India’s playing XI. With him in the side, India will have four frontline pacers, one frontline spinner and part-timer Hanuma Vihari at the SCG. On the other hand, Sydney’s pitch traditionally supports spin. This can play into Ashwin’s hands, as India may go with two frontline spinners, one part-timer (Vihari) and three quality pacers.

As it stands, Kuldeep’s inclusion will be based on whether India want to go with two frontline spinners (him and Jadeja) and Ashwin fails to get fit in time for the Sydney Test.

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India's Kuldeep Yadav

(David Davies/PA via AP)

Can India create history?

The biggest question asked when the series started will be answered when Sydney Test ends. Melbourne’s win means that India have held the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, but their work is far from over.

The Australian team haven’t enjoyed the best of times over the last few months, with Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft banned. India were touted as favourites by many, but India have never won a Test series in Australia. This felt like the best time to rewrite history.

India have taken a giant stride towards that. Leading 2-1 with a Test to go, they are outplaying the hosts. More importantly, even after their humbling in Perth, India came out all guns blazing to dominate Australians at the MCG. Sydney is now their final frontier.

Led by Cummins and Lyon, Australia will certainly be stiff competition. Additionally, if they need to bat in a fourth innings on a turning track, it shall be a tougher task.

India have always been derailed by a relatively unknown entity to them – hence Marnus Labuschagne can come in handy. Having said all this, India will come to Sydney full of confidence. They are hungry but have their feet on the floor.

This should be the best chance for India to win their first-ever Test series in Australia. However, the hosts will want to ensure that the wait goes on.

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Who will be man of the series?

In terms of pure on-field cricket, the India-Australia rivalry is at the top. Both are two of the world’s premier cricketing nations. Heroes are born in every series between them. This has been no exception.

Sydney will be the final Test of this trophy. At the end, a man of the series will be crowned. Nobody can conclusively say who will get the accolade until the series ends. Yet with three matches finished, we know the frontrunners.

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An important aspect to consider will be the result at SCG. An Australia win will mean that the series ends in a draw and an Australian or Indian could be crowned as the best player of this series. On the other hand, a draw in Sydney or an Indian win will mean that an Indian will certainly bag the award.

Let’s look at the four likeliest contenders to win the trophy.

Jasprit Bumrah
The likeliest of the lot

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Bumrah is the breakout star of this series. At 20 wickets with an average of just 14.65, he is the leading wicket-taker of this series. He was so good that in every over he bowled at Melbourne, Perth or Adelaide, he seemed like taking a wicket. He has bettered batsmen on pace, maintained a disciplined line and length and floored Australian batsmen with short bowling.

His dismissal of Shaun Marsh by a slow yorker was a piece of genius and was compared to great Curtly Ambrose. He should back himself to carry his form in Sydney. Bumrah has been one of the main reasons why India find themselves 2-1 up in this closely fought series. It will be fitting to see him being the catalyst to India’s famous Test series win down under.

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Cheteshwar Pujara
328 runs at around 55 with two centuries and a 50

Pujara is the leading run scorer of this tournament. He has been the most prized Indian wicket and offered stiff resistance nearly every time he has got in the middle. Pujara’s brilliant 123 at Adelaide Oval was regarded by some as one of the best Test knocks of last calendar year. He followed that up with a gutsy 71 in the second innings.

After failures in Perth, he against scored a century in India’s first innings in Melbourne and played a big role as the side mustered up 443. This has been perhaps the best tour for Pujara in his career. Already with one man of the match under his belt, a good performance in Sydney will make him a leading contender as the best player of this series.

Nathan Lyon
Australia’s most valuable player

Nathan Lyon – the ‘GOAT’ – has looked the most menacing of Australian bowlers this series. He was one of the prime contenders for man of the series after the Perth Test, but pale returns at the MCG may have dropped his stock a bit.

With 16 wickets in just two Tests, Lyon was the best bowler of this series. He looked ultra threatening and the Indians, the world’s best players of spin, were often bamboozled. He masterfully set up Virat Kohli in Perth’s second innings, and with that he dented India’s chances of chasing 287 to win.

However, at the G the Indians seemed to have finally found an answer to his puzzle – get to the line of the ball and attack.

Lyon has also been a more than handy batsman, with 83 runs at around 27 in this series. Hard work on his batting under the guidance of his brother has helped. He has put up stiff resistance – in fact at the MCG he partnered Pat Cummins as they fought for over 15 overs and forced the match into a fifth day.

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The SCG’s pitch is spin-friendly and Lyon should be lethal. He can win man of the series if Australia win at the SCG.

Nathan Lyon of Australia walks onto the ground with the Australian flag

(Daniel Kalisz – CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)

Pat Cummins
The sensational all-rounder of the summer

With 138 runs and 14 wickets in three Tests, Cummins has been one of the best players of this series. He has bowled Australia out of the hole and batted gutsily whenever asked to.

Cummins had a slow start to series with the ball. He picked just two wickets in Adelaide but his knock of 28 nearly allowed Australia to chase down 322. He was electric in the field and his runout of Pujara caused ripples even in the United States. He had decent returns in Perth as well, with three wickets. However, it was in Melbourne where he showed his class.

As the Indians tamed the new-ball attack in first innings, he made inroads into India’s batting order. However, it was in the second innings that he wowed everyone. At one time he took four wickets – those of Vihari, Pujara, Kohli and Rahane – for just two runs. He eventually finished with six out of India’s eight wickets and always threatened the opposition.

Cummins also played positive cricket for his career-best 63 off 114 balls. He took the Test to the final day and at one point dared Australia to dream of a heroic victory.

There is no denying that Cummins is one of the standout players of this series. However, like Lyon, the result at Sydney will decide whether he can win the man of the series.

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