With an eye on the ICC World Test Championship final, India will aim to underline their reputation as one of the top teams in world cricket when they host an equally strong Australia for a four-Test series, starting in Nagpur from February 9.
India enjoy a superior head to head record against Australia in recent years, having won the last three series against them, including the last two Down Under.
But since that loss against India in 2020-2021, Australia have been unstoppable, winning won four of their last five series -- against England, Pakistan, the West Indies and Sri Lanka, while one series in Sri Lanka ended in a 1-1 draw.
While the highly-anticipated India-Australia Test series is the talk of the cricketing world, the two teams have been hit hard by a few injuries.
Both India and Australia will be missing some key players. India will be without two match-winners in Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant for the entire series, while Australia will be without premier strike bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood for the first Test, while all-rounder Cameron Green is also a doubtful starter.
One of the most talked about points heading into the series, as is always the case with a series in India, is the 22-yard strip in the middle.
The pitches in India for Test cricket since the Mahendra Singh Dhoni era have been loaded in favour of spinners and it continued under Virat Kohli's reign too. Hence, it would be a surprise if the Nagpur stadium pitch too doesn't start turning in the first morning.
Also, India's best chance to get the better of a strong Australian team depends largely on the pitch. The hosts boast of one of the best spinners in the world in home conditions in Ravichandran Ashwin, while a fit-again Ravindra Jadeja is one of the most difficult bowlers to negotiate on turning tracks.
The only point to ponder for the hosts will be who to pick as the third spinner between Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav. Though not as skillful with the ball, Axar could get the nod on the basis of his superior batting ability.
While some former India cricketers and experts want the BCCI to prepare sporting pitches to ensure a much-balanced contest between bat and ball, it could turn out to be a big disadvantage for the home team if the likes of David Warner, Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head get stuck on a wicket with true bounce and pace.
On the other hand, preparing a turning pitch has its own share of perils as India's batters could come undone against Australia's spin wizard Nathan Lyon.
Another selection dilemma facing the Indians is whether to include young batting hero Shubman Gill or gamble with the T20 sensation Suryakumar Yadav.
K L Rahul, who is also the vice-captain, is all set to open the batting with Rohit Sharma, which leaves just one slot to accomodate either Gill or Suryakumar.
Shreyas Iyer, who would have otherwise batted at No 5, has been ruled out of the first Test because of injury and India could opt for the in-form Gill, who has been enjoying a purple patch with the bat in recent months and also has the experience of playing 13 Tests in his young career so far.
Rishabh Pant's absenceleaves a huge hole in India's batting. Pant has been one of India's top batters in Tests, scoring 2,271 runs in 33 matches at an average of 43, with five centuries and 11 fifties.
He was instrumental in India's historic Test series victory in Australia in 2021 with two sensational knocks in the Sydney and Brisbane Tests; his quickfire 93 in the second Test against Bangladesh recently saved India the blushes.
Pant's dominating and consistent showing with the bat afforded India the luxury of going with five specialist bowlers in the last few years. But with no Pant in the playing XI and Iyer also unavailable, it remains to be seen if India risk going in with a batter less to accomodate five specialist bowlers.
K S Bharat could take over the gloves ahead of Ishan Kishan, who has struggled for runs in white ball cricket with a highest score of 37 in his last nine innings -- including six T20Is and three ODIs.
Bharat, 29, is an experienced campaigner in domestic cricket with 4,707 runs in 86 first class games at an average of 37.95, including nine centuries and 27 fifties.
On the other hand, 24-year-oldKishan tallies 2,985 runs in 48 first class matches, averaging 38, with six centuries and 16 fifties.
It would not be a surprise if India play four specialist bowlers including two spinners and two fast bowlers, as they would like some extra insurance in their batting in case the pitch is loaded in favour of the spinners.
But trust Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid to go with Axar as the third spinner as the left-hander also lengthens the batting line-up.
Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami will be the two pacemen, with their ability to make most of the new ball and bowl some reverse swing later although Vidarbha's Umesh Yadav is always in the running when it comes to home Tests.
My Probable XI: Rohit Sharma, K L Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shubman Gill, K S Bharat, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Mohammed Siraj, Mohammed Shami.
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