By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Overflowing with confidence and buoyed by the blossoming of a rare pace talent, India can sniff a first-ever series win on Australian soil ahead of the fourth and final test in Sydney.
Led by Jasprit Bumrah’s series-leading 20 wickets, India’s vaunted pace attack have hogged the spotlight this tour but the slow bowlers may get their turn to shine on the traditionally spin-friendly wicket at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Leading the series 2-1 after the 137-run thrashing of Tim Paine’s depleted Australia in Melbourne on Sunday, Virat Kohli’s team are in the box seat to shrug off the nation’s history of underachievement Down Under.
The last Indian team to win two tests in Australia was back in 1977-78 but the Bob Simpson-captained hosts claimed the fifth and final contest to break the hearts of Bishan Bedi’s side.
After India outplayed Australia with bat and ball in Melbourne, Kohli is convinced India have the firepower to break new ground.
“We’re not shocked or very surprised by what’s happened,” he said after the MCG triumph.
“We always believed that it’s very possible because of the talent we have in the side and the mindset that we’ve been carrying for the last 12 months, regardless of what’s been said or the mistakes we’ve made.
“It’s a great opportunity from the point of view that we always wanted to win a series away from home.
“The fact that the boys realised we worked so hard to be here now and there is no looking back, it’s the last test of the series and you have to give everything you have to win a series, and that was our goal from day one.”
India’s sole defeat in the series came without a spinner at Perth, when the team went with four pace bowlers in a much-criticised selection. Australia spinner Nathan Lyon took a bag of wickets to be named man-of-the-match.
Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja was selected in Melbourne and supported the quicks with five wickets, while Ravichandran Ashwin continued his recovery from an abdominal strain.
Ashwin took six wickets and was instrumental in the series-opening win in Adelaide, so India may be keen to unleash a dual spin bowling attack against Australia’s ill-at-ease batsmen.
“It depends on the pitch. I think Ashwin’s very close to being match fit,” Kohli said. “He’s been bowling a lot of overs and I’m sure these next four days will make him even stronger.
“Regardless, being the last test match I think he will be willing to push himself and start for the team but again it depends on what type of pitch we get for Sydney.”
Plagued by worries over their opening pair after Perth, India solved one half of the equation by blooding Mayank Agarwal, who enjoyed a stellar debut with a 76 in the first innings and three catches in the match.
With 42 in the second innings, Agarwal’s total of 118 runs for the match was a record for an Indian debutant in Australia.
Spin bowling all-rounder Hanuma Vihari, promoted from number six after Perth, was less assured in his debut as an opener, scoring eight and 13.
He could make way for fit-again seam-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya should selectors opt for two spinners.
Kohli, however, praised Vihari for soaking up 111 deliveries in the Melbourne test and may be reluctant to fiddle too much with a winning combination.
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)