SYDNEY — The series is tied at the halfway point. Australia and India have been surpassed by New Zealand atop the test cricket rankings.
There’s quarantine and travel restrictions. There’s tension.
Australia captain Tim Paine let it be known on the eve of the third test at the Sydney Cricket Ground that the gloves are off. Rumors about the India squad’s discontent with hotel restrictions and reluctance to travel to Brisbane for the fourth test have opened up a little bit of acrimony.
“It’s boiling away, there’s some stuff starting to happen, a bit of chat starting to happen,” Paine said Jan. 6. “This test is going to be fascinating not just from a cricket point of view.
“There’s a bit of tension starting to boil under the surface with unnamed sources coming out from their camp saying where they want to play the fourth test and where they don’t want to go. I think it’s starting to grind a few people.”
India’s stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane declined comment on the issue, saying only that the quarantine conditions that got tougher this week were “a challenge” and he’d leave it to team management to make decisions on the schedule.
“We are just focusing on tomorrow’s game, we’re not complaining or anything,” Rahane said. “We just want to start well.”
Australia’s eight-wicket win in a day-night test in Adelaide to open this series and India’s equalizing eight-wicket win in Melbourne were played in good spirits.
India’s standing as the financial powerhouse of the sport meant speculation about the squad’s apparent reluctance to play what could be a series-deciding test at the Gabba, where Australia hasn’t lost a test since 1988, was taken seriously by Paine’s lineup.
It caused a “bit of uncertainty,” Paine said. “Because when you hear things like that coming, particularly from India who we know hold a lot of power in world cricket, it’s likely that it could happen.
“So for us we just want to be really clear on this test match.”
There’ll be changes to both lineups for the SCG.
Rohit Sharma will replace opener Mayank Agarwal after showing no signs of discomfort from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for the limited-overs portion of the tour and the first two tests. He’ll also be deputy to Rahane, whose gritty century guided India to victory in Melbourne.
“We all are really excited to have him back, especially his experience at the highest level,” Rahane said. “He is batting really well in the nets.
“The last couple of series he has been playing as an opener so you will definitely see him at the top.”
India also made enforced changes to its bowling attack, with 28-year-old right-arm fast bowler Navdeep Saini selected for a test debut to support Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj, who took five wickets on test debut last week. Saini replaces Umesh Yadav, who joined fellow fast bowlers Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma on the injured list. Spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are expected to have an influence on a wicket that takes turn.
Australia’s bowling attack is settled, but the batting department is due for an overhaul.
Paine indicated David Warner was ready to return from a groin injury. He could be partnered at the top of the Australian order by 22-year-old Will Pucovski, who has passed concussion protocols and looms as a strong contender to make his test debut in Sydney after Joe Burns was dropped.
That could also mean a change to the middle-order, with Matthew Wade — a makeshift opener in Adelaide and Melbourne — either batting lower or being dropped, or Travis Head losing his spot at No. 5.
Australia can regain test cricket’s top ranking with a series win, and India needs a 3-1 win to move to No. 1. New Zealand took No. 1 spot for the first time on Wednesday by completing consecutive sweeps of West Indies and Pakistan at home.
Despite the high stakes, there’s no chance of the match being a sellout. The state government has insisted the crowd capacity has be lowered to 25 percent at the SCG — and all fans must wear masks — because of a recent COVID-19 outbreak in parts of Sydney.
India: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (captain), Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini.
Australia (from): David Warner, Will Pucovski, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matthew Wade, Cameron Green, Tim Paine (captain), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon.