RANCHI: Bitter rivals India and Australia resume their battle for Test supremacy on Thursday in Ranchi at the start of the third match in a series that has already dragged relations close to breaking point.
India won the second Test in Bangalore to leave the series tantalisingly poised at 1-1 but simmering tensions boiled over when the hosts’ captain accused his opposite number of abusing the decision review system (DRS).
The International Cricket Council, which decided not to punish either Virat Kohli or Steve Smith over the flare-up, has called the two skippers together for clear-the-air talks ahead of the match.
But former players on both sides have again been stirring things up ahead of Ranchi, a match in which India must avoid defeat if they want to win back the Border-Gavaskar trophy.
Australia’s hopes suffered a double blow last week when all-rounder Mitchell Marsh and pace spearhead Mitchell Starc were ruled out of the last two Test with injuries.
India’s concerns are centred on the form of Kohli who has totalled just 40 runs in the series after scoring double centuries in the last four Test series.
The meeting between Smith and Kohli was agreed to by their respective boards amid warnings the series risked degenerating into anarchy.
India were furious when Smith was spotted looking up at his dressing-room for guidance on whether to seek a review of the umpire’s decision after being given out lbw – a clear breach of the DRS rules.
While Smith called it a one-off “brain fade”, Kohli said it was not an isolated incident – a claim the Australia board branded “outrageous”.
Former Australian skipper Ian Chappell has been among the critics of the ICC’s softly-softly approach, saying things had been allowed to fester.
“It’s been allowed to escalate over the years, and nobody is stepping in to stop it. It’s going to cause a huge problem one day on the field,” he wrote on the website of Australia’s Channel Nine network.
“It already causes a bit of animosity from time to time, but from the evidence so far this series it will go beyond that at some stage.”
The sniping has continued since Bangalore with Indian spinner Ravichandran Ashwin accusing Australia of resorting to tactics reminiscent of an under-10 team.
But Australia have been playing their own mind games, with their leading spinner Nathan Lyon saying all the pressure is on the hosts.
“Everyone said that we are going to lose 4-0. It’s 1-1, we’re one win away from regaining the trophy and that’s what we are here to do,” said Lyon, who took a career-best 8-50 in Bangalore.
“The pressure is right on India – there is no pressure on us.”
India, just ahead of Australia at the top of the world rankings, had been firm favourites at the start of the series but were soundly beaten in the first match and struggled in Bangalore before sensationally dismissing the tourists for 112 in their second innings.
While India should be unchanged, Australia are expected to call up Pat Cummins for Starc and Glenn Maxwell or Marcus Stoinis will replace Marsh.
With India still struggling to find an effective opening combination, the hosts need Kohli to rediscover his form.
Former Australia fast bowler Mitchell Johnson has suggested Kohli’s outburst against Smith was due to frustration at his low scores.
But Indian batting great VVS Laxman said it was only a matter of time before Kohli came good.
“If I was an Australian, I would be wary of a backlash, maybe in Ranchi, maybe in Dharamsala, maybe in both places,” he wrote on the cricket country website.
After Ranchi, the final Test begins in Dharamsala on March 25.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund.
Australia: Steve Smith (captain), David Warner, Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steve O’Keefe, Matthew Renshaw, Pat Cummins, Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade.