The world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad is an apt venue given the large stakes on offer for the final Test of a fascinating Border-Gavaskar series. The pomp and ceremony surrounding the arrival of the respective Prime Ministers might bolster the crowd to record levels, but the cricket should be enough of a draw. India must win not only to seal a series victory but to guarantee their place in the World Test Championship final. An Australia victory would not only open the door for Sri Lanka to steal a place in the WTC final, should they beat New Zealand 2-0 in the adjacent series in New Zealand, but it would also level the series 2-2. Should they pull that off, it could well be regarded as one of the greatest achievements by a visiting team in India in recent memory. Australia in 2004 and England in 2012 claimed series victories against India in India. But both those teams only won two Tests and neither were subjected to the types of extreme surfaces Australia have faced in this series.
India suddenly look vulnerable. The ease of the victory in Delhi masked two periods in that Test where Australia had both a clear ascendency and an opportunity to put the game beyond India’s reach. Australia found themselves in a similar position in Indore but despite a staggering collapse in their first innings they managed to maintain their position of strength through the outstanding bowling of Nathan Lyon.
India’s made-to-order spinning pitches backfired against their batters who are struggling against the unwavering accuracy and skill of Lyon, Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann. Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara are the only specialist India batters to have made a half-century in the series, with the batting burden falling on Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel and R Ashwin at various stages but none could bail India out in Indore. India coach Rahul Dravid has urged fans to be realistic about their expectations of the batters on the challenging pitches.
Australia’s top order has fared better than their counterparts in the last two matches. Usman Khawaja‘s first innings 60 in Indore was arguably the difference between the two sides. Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Peter Handcomb and Cameron Green all made important contributions, with the latter’s addition clearly strengthening Australia’s batting significantly. Travis Head and Labuschagne then iced the game in the second with a nerveless display. Australia’s tail is still a huge concern though having lost 6 for 11 after the Delhi collapse of 8 for 28. If Australia can avoid another collapse in Ahmedabad they will be very hard to beat.
There was some confusion around what surface will be presented after talk of a green seamer. But if another dry surface is presented then both sides are likely to shape up with similar XIs, with Smith remaining as Australia’s captain while Pat Cummins remains at home. It will be a question of which team bats the best with the toss becoming irrelevant given how much the ball has spun from day one in each of the three Tests so far.
India’s reputation as an impenetrable fortress, and national pride, is at stake. Losing again at their own game in front of their Prime Minister would be a major blow.
India LWWWW (last five matches, most recent first) Australia WLLDW
In the spotlight: Smith and Kohli are due
It was anticipated that Steven Smith could match his feats of 2017 on this tour but the surfaces, aside from the 2017 Pune pitch, have been far more difficult. Smith has looked very good at times. He batted superbly in both innings in Nagpur but was beaten on the inside in the first innings and remained not out in the second. He was unlucky to nick an unpredictable straight one from Ashwin in the first innings in Delhi but his shot in the second was by his own admission one of the worst of his career.
He led the side in Indore magnificently and led with his actions and reactions with the bat. He batted very nicely for an undervalued 26 in a low-scoring game. He got an outside edge to a sharp turner from Jadeja and was happy to accept getting out that way, something he explained to his team in the aftermath as it was within his plans to accept getting beaten that way as opposed to on the inside. That acceptance of the conditions, and the team’s acceptance of what they are facing, shows incredible maturity from Smith. He is due for a score. India will fear giving him a life or even slightly more favourable batting conditions as he could cut loose.
The same can be said for Virat Kohli. Like Smith, he has looked as good as any batter in these conditions at various stages throughout this series only for one mistake to bring about his downfall. Much has been made of his century drought but as Dravid noted, centuries in these conditions are near-on impossible. Half-centuries can be match-winning contributions and Kohli on current form is capable of that having gone close in Delhi. But he hasn’t made a Test half-century in his last 15 innings dating back to January 2022.
For Kohli, it appears to be decision-making and a touch of luck as much as anything else. Murphy has had an impressive hold on him in this series pinning him down and not allowing him to rotate strike with drives to long on or long off or flicks off the back foot through forward square. He’s been forced to search for both shots and run aground in the process. Patience could well be the key for Kohli. The longer he stays there, the bigger threat he is. He’s had no trouble getting started on these pitches. Like Pujara and Khawaja in Indore, he perhaps just needs to camp out and wait for his opportunities to score.
Team news: Mohammed Siraj surplus to requirements?
Mohammed Shami was oddly rested in Indore and presuming he is fit, he should return in Ahmedabad. His replacement, Umesh Yadav, bowled a spectacular spell to bring India back into the match in Indore and also produced a batting cameo in the first innings. His wicket-taking and hitting ability with the bat makes him a more attractive asset than Mohammed Siraj at present. Shami could well replace Siraj as the only change for India. Dravid noted playing an extra batter is possible but also noted the second seamer is handy to have, especially with India’s batting depth.
Australia look the most settled they have been in terms of selection all series. The batting will likely be unchanged from Indore. The attack in Indore was nicely balanced. It is unlikely they will make any change to that in Ahmedabad if it’s another dry spinning pitch. The only other possibility they could consider is playing an eighth batter instead of Mitchell Starc, if they think the pitch will be another rank turner that won’t last three days. But that would seem unlikely.
Australia (possible): 1 Travis Head, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Peter Handscomb, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Todd Murphy, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Matthew Kuhnemann
Pitch and conditions
There were two pitches prepared at Narendra Modi Stadium two days out. With the series still alive at 2-1, the drier pitch has been preferred after Rohit and Dravid inspected it on Tuesday. It looks likely to spin from day one again although Steven Smith said it could be the best batting surface so far, at least to start with. There were two Tests played here between India and England in 2021. The day-nighter lasted two days while the day game lasted three with spin dominating both. It is expected to be very hot in Ahmedabad as well meaning any moisture on day one will not remain for long.
Stats and trivia
Spin has taken 48 of the 60 wickets to fall in the last two Tests at Narendra Modi Stadium. Axar Patel has 20 wickets at 9.30 with three five-wicket hauls in four innings at the venue.
Virat Kohli has gone 15 Test innings without a half-century. The next longest streak without a fifty of any specialist batter playing in Indore was Marnus Labuschagne with six innings.
India’s batters from No.7-11 have contributed 403 runs at an average of 25.18 across the first three Test matches, including three half-centuries. Australia’s batters from No.7-11 have contributed just 140 runs at 6.36.
“Yes, we accept that we didn’t make the right calls in the last game [Making DRS calls can be hard with] especially Jaddu yaar. Every ball he thinks it’s out. I understand, they’re quite animated, it’s just the passion of the game, but that’s where my role comes in, to say bhai, relax a little, it’s okay if it’s at least ending up somewhere near the stumps, but this isn’t even hitting the stumps, and some balls were even pitching outside [leg stump], so that was a silly mistake that we made but we hope to correct that in this game and we’ll have a small chat regarding this as well, and hopefully we can get it right in this game.” India captain Rohit Sharma hopes to learn from the costly DRS errors his side made in Indore
“I think it’d be a huge achievement for this group, or any touring team, that comes here to India and wins two Test matches. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do it earlier in the series and give ourselves a chance to win but to draw the series here would be a huge plus and positive.” Australia captain Steven Smith
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo