What is the common thread between the 2018 South Africa-India Test at Johannesburg, and the 2012 Australia-India at Perth? These are the only two instances in their Test history wherein India took the field without a full-time spinner in their playing eleven.
We could be in for a third instance on Friday, again in Perth, but at the swanky new Optus Stadium that will host its first-ever Test. As Virat Kohli walked in, and talked about getting an MCG feel from it given his humongous concrete nature, a raging, green-top wicket at the centre of it all greeted him.
Pitch curator Brett Sipthorpe has endeavoured to give us the old ‘WACA’ feeling where the ball is flying and the batsmen have to get under or be blown away. That there will be pace and bounce on this drop-in pitch is a given. But it is a heavy top layer of grass that gives this wicket a certain raging quality that we might not be able to have full four days’ cricket, let alone five.
Weirdly enough, it doesn’t alter Australia’s strategy. The hosts shied away from playing an extra bowler on a comparatively flatter surface in Adelaide, and left out Mitchell Marsh. Why will they contemplate leaving out a full-time batsman on this green-top? There is no chance of leaving out Nathan Lyon either.
He is an off-spinner who can spin the ball and get wickets on any wicket. In fact, he played at this ground two weeks ago in a Sheffied Shield game against Western Australia. Reportedly the pitch for that first-class game was quite similar to the one laid out now. Lyon used the bounce on offer to good effect and picked up seven wickets in two innings, leading New South Wales to victory.
But there is more to look up from that Shield game. On day one, pacer Joel Richardson took 8-47 in 20.3 overs. Look at it whichever way you want – when a fast bowler is capable of doing such damage with the Kookaburra ball, old or new, you just know that the batsmen don’t have much chance on it. And that will reflect in the manner India will select their playing eleven, never mind the news of two big blows owing to injury.
Squad: Virat Kohli (C), M Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (VC), Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (WK), Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav
On the injury front, Prithvi Shaw is ruled out still although he is expected to recover by the Boxing Day Test. The latest is about Rohit Sharma and R Ashwin, as both have been ruled out due to injuries as well. Sharma suffered some back issue while fielding in Adelaide, while Ashwin has picked up a left-side strain. The latter’s injury comes at a good point – there is every chance India will play four fast bowlers, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar coming in.
Kohli will get to do what not many other Indian captains have done before him in Test cricket. Only once in the past, MS Dhoni was able to field a complete pace attack, back in 2012. The quality of that attack though was poor – Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and R Vinay Kumar. The last name couldn’t even get the ball to once on its way to the keeper, while Ishant and Umesh were not the bowlers they are today.
Make no mistake about it – this is a fearsome pace attack that Kohli possesses currently. Each among Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant, Umesh and Jasprit Bumrah is a different bowler, and all of them are single-handedly capable of running through an opponent’s batting line-up. If you had a dry wicket, which will aid reverse swing, you pick Shami and Umesh.
If you want a pacer to be the workhorse and bowl non-stop from one end, you pick Ishant. If there is seam movement available, you hand the ball to Bumrah and watch him bang it in, closer to the batsmen’s body and make them pay. If there is live grass on the pitch, Kumar will have the red cherry on a string.
Sure, a green-top wicket means that the Indian batsmen are as much in danger as the Australian line-up. On such pitches, there is always a ball with your name so you try to make the most of whatever time you have got on the wicket. India will rely on their experience at Johannesburg, which was the angriest pitch they have played on, as Kohli pointed out in the build-up to the second Test.
Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood will be licking their lips, and out-of-form batsmen like KL Rahul and Murali Vijay will be worried. Rohit Sharma will be very happy to not play this Test.
Unknowingly though, the pitch curator has played this straight into India’s hands. As South Africa learnt at the Wanderers in January, this is a very different pace attack, capable of routing the opposition, and Kohli will only be too happy to unleash them.
Also by the author:The mistakes that cost Kohli & co. at Brisbane