India vs Australia: Bruised and broken India’s Brisbane dilemma

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Pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah is “a very doubtful starter” for the Brisbane Test starting Friday according to the team management, after he suffered an abdominal strain. On Tuesday, the bowler was taken for scans and a decision on his fitness is expected on Wednesday.

With this, a “bruised” and “broken” Indian team, as captain Ajinkya Rahane put it, added yet another casualty to a list so lengthy that it may leave Rahane with no choice but to simply play the only eleven players who are fit.

Ravichander Ashwin, India’s match-saving hero from the third Test in Sydney, spoke only half in jest when he told broadcasters after that Test: “I think what Ajinkya is going to do is hop out of the dressing room and call eleven of us and whoever is ready to go will go (in Brisbane). We are losing people in a hurry. We have lost people, every single game.”

Let’s look at the long line of injuries – Ishant Sharma did not recover in time from an injury before the tour; Mohammed Shami was ruled out with a fractured arm after being hit by a bouncer in the first Test; Umesh Yadav was ruled out with a calf strain during the second Test; KL Rahul injured his wrist during a practice session and flew back home; Hanuma Vihari was ruled out after pulling a hamstring during the third Test; as was Ravindra Jadeja, who dislocated his thumb during the third Test and underwent a surgery on his bowling hand on Tuesday.

“Out of action for a while, surgery completed. But will soon return with a bang!” Jadeja tweeted on Tuesday.

India are also without the services of Virat Kohli, who flew home for the birth of his first child after the first Test.

A debutant bowling attack

If Bumrah is unable to play at Brisbane, the Indian bowling attack will resemble a parade of debutants. Mohammed Siraj, now all of two Tests old after having made his debut in Melbourne, will be the most experienced fast bowler in the line-up. Navdeep Saini made his debut in Sydney. Shardul Thakur, who is almost certain to make the playing XI simply because he is available, has bowled all of 10 balls in a Test match – in his debut Test in 2018, where he got injured.

There is an irony here – a fit-again Ishant Sharma, who the BCCI had disallowed from traveling with the contingent to continue his rehab in Australia, is now taking wickets at the Mushtaq Ali trophy.

Double irony – India sent a much larger than usual squad of 22 players to Australia to cover for injuries as the bio-bubble rules would have made it near-impossible for players to travel from India as replacements mid-tour.

Bumrah’s workload

Bumrah had experienced abdominal pain during the second innings of the Sydney Test and taken a breather for treatment before continuing to bowl. His problems may be a consequence of increased workload – he has bowled 117.4 overs in six innings, the most amongst pacers of both teams. Contrast this to the 2018-19 Border-Gavaskar trophy, where the workload was shared equally between him, Shami, Sharma and Yadav.

The pitch at the Gabba has historically been fast and bouncy, but India will be forced to go in with perhaps its most inexperienced fast bowling line-up ever. If the Gabba track has enough green, there could be a temptation to play both Thakur and the uncapped Natarajan alongside Siraj and Saini.

Ashwin, who struggled with back spasms during the third Test, will fight through pain to be the only experienced bowler in the side. The other option is to ignore the pitch and play Kuldeep Yadav for a double-spin attack.

A completely quirky move would be to draft Washington Sundar, who is in Australia as a net bowler, into the squad and hand him a debut. Sundar began as a batsman in his formative years, and his batting average is double of his equally impressive average bowling off-spin (26) in 12 first-class matches.

The batting

Rishabh Pant, who was also hit on the elbow during the third Test and had to sit out Australia’s second innings, is expected to retain his place as a wicketkeeper. He will not be picked as a specialist batsman so that India can play five bowlers, according to sources in the Indian team management. That would mean the exclusion of Wriddhiman Saha, and one of the two dropped openers, Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw being called up to replace Vihari.

Agarwal has taken a blow on the hand too in the nets at Sydney. It may be a case of him having to pass a fitness test too.

That India still goes into the fourth Test with the series undecided and great expectations of an epic fight is a testament to the team’s resolve, strategic nous, bench strength and sheer toughness.