A look at the matches of the past five years to find out the best Indian combination at Melbourne…

The strategy of fielding an all-pace attack at Perth has been hauled over the scorching fire of criticism by the media and fans alike. And as India move on to Melbourne to take on a recharged Australia for the Boxing Day Test with the series locked one-all, speculations are rife about the combination they are going to try out in this crucial showdown.

There seemed to be two downsides to the methods of Perth.

The bowling lacked the spin-dimension, which could have come in handy. Nathan Lyon did pick up 8 wickets in the game and was declared Man of the Match. Yes, Ravichandran Ashwin was unfit. Lyon used the bounce to an extent that Ravindra Jadeja could not be expected to, and the canny Australian off-spinner knows all about bowling in these conditions which the Indians don’t. But, with the cracks and footmarks coming increasingly into play India could have been better off with a genuine spinner in the side.

Additionally, the four-pace-bowler move saw India go in with one of the worst tails in the history of Test cricket. What with the openers being as unproductive as they have been this year, that was a big, big risk. And Jadeja would have added a lot of vital depth to the batting line-up.

Also read: The enormous holes at the top of the Indian order

Ravi Shastri has clarified (?) that Jadeja was not fully fit for the Perth Test. Which is perhaps not perfectly in sync with skipper Virat Kohli’s declaration that the team unanimously decided on the four-pace way. But, it very well might have been one of the parameters taken into consideration while the call was made.

However, now the series has moved on and new developments are in place. Jadeja has, by all accounts, recovered. Thus the spin-bowling all-rounder can be slotted into the side. Hardik Pandya has been flown in as a pace bowling all-round option as well. The question is, what combination will the team management go for?

A look at the last five years of Tests at Melbourne reveal that it has generally been a tall-scoring venue. Especially the first and second innings of the recent Tests have seen plenty of runs. At the same time, the scores in the third and fourth innings have not been that high. And there have been results in three of the five Tests. It becomes difficult to bat as the Test progresses.

The pace bowlers have had a better deal here. They average  38.45 in the last five years for their 108 wickets. The spinners have struggled, picking up 33  at 50.15.

Once again, as is so common in Australia these days, the spinners have had their figures made a lot more respectable by the brilliance of Nathan Lyon. The ace off-spinner has 22 wickets at 30.40 at the venue in the last five years. Left to themselves, the visiting spinners have managed just 11 wickets at a monstrous 81.09.

The Australian pacemen have also had, perhaps expectedly, better of the exchanges. Their 61 wickets in the past five years have come at 31 apiece. The visiting pacemen have struggled as well, with 47 wickets at 48 each.

However, the pacers, in general, have had a much better time here.

When the pitch wears in the third and fourth innings, the Australian spinners spearheaded by Lyon do reap the benefits. Their 11 wickets in the second opposition innings have come at 19.90. However, that is not a tiding of joy for the visiting spinners. They have managed just 4 wickets in the four Tests when Australia batted second and these have come at a high exchange rate of 56 runs.

 

Bowlers at Melbourne from 2013
Australian Pacers Visiting Pacers Australian Spinners Visiting Spinners
Overall 61 wkts at 30.95 47 wkts at 48.19 22 wkts at 34.27 11 wkts at 81.91
Second innings 37 wkts at 34.83 13 wkts at  57.15 11 wkts at 19.90 4 wkts at 56.25

If we look at the successful bowlers out here, apart from Lyon, we sense a glimmer of hope. While Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Mitchell Starc have bowled blistering spells here, James Anderson and Stuart Broad have been quite handy here as well. Hence, apart from raw pace, there seems to be some help for swing. Additionally, the last time England played here, there were supposed attempts to scruff up the ball, and Mitchell Johnson tweeted that it was reversing before 10 overs had been bowled.

Hence, Mohammad Shami and company can perhaps anticipate some help in that direction.

So, on paper, there is as near nothing as possible for the visiting spinners.

But things look a bit brighter for the Indian pacemen.

Indian teams of the past have been prone to buckle down under the fire of criticism and make alterations to strategies, many of which have backfired because of the tinkering. But Virat Kohli has not yet demonstrated that particular trait in his mental makeup, perhaps thankfully so.

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With Pandya in the mix, there can definitely be the temptation of going in with four pace bowlers yet again, especially given the lack of success of visiting spinners in recent years. Previously, the Indian teams did not want to leave spinners out. The mantra was to play to your strengths, and back your positives. Spin had been the weapon of choice for the side since … well… forever. But now they have a pace attack like never before and there can indeed be a paradigm shift in the approach, and that can often be a difficult concept for the team’s followers to grasp.

However, there is one aspect in these numbers that do make one wonder whether it will still be prudent to play at least one spinner of quality.

The first innings for teams in Melbourne, considering the previous five years, have lasted, on an average 122 overs.  They have been pretty long affairs, and extend mostly to a full day and a session. Bowling through that long an innings without a regular spinner can be quite tricky. With this in mind, it will be strongly recommended to go in with Jadeja in the side.

In case India is willing to experiment with out of the box solutions, there is a possibility of tinkering with a defective opening combination, enhancing the balance of the side and not compromising on a four-pronged pace battery.

That is if Hanuma Vihari’s organised technique and glimpses of a solid temperament can be used at the top of the order, replacing one of the regular openers. Whether Mayank Agarwal is played alongside him, or India stick to one of the other openers is a call the management has to take. In the slot vacated by pushing Vihari up, Hardik Pandya can fit in. And one of the pace bowler, perhaps Umesh Yadav, can make way for Ravindra Jadeja. That way, India bat to No 8, with Pandya, Rishabh Pant and Jadeja making it a useful late order. And there will be four pace bowlers and a spinner in the attack, enough to go all-out for victory. There will also be a merciful new look at the top of the order, with someone who has looked solid so far.

Vihari, Agarwal/Rahul/Vijay (in that order of preference), Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Pandya, Pant, Jadeja, Ishant, Shami, Bumrah.

This seems to be the ideal combination backed by form and data. We have to wait and watch to find out what the Indian team management decides.

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