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Dharamsala decider promises more surprises

Match facts

March 25-29, 2017
Start time 0930 local (0400 GMT)

Big picture

In a series that has hit plenty of heights, the mountaintop locale of Dharamsala seems as fitting a place as any for the fate of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy to be decided. India's players, and doubtless a few on the other side, probably expected the fourth Test to be a festive occasion, completing a marathon home international season with the completion of a comfortable series win over Australia against the most picturesque background possible. But as the former BCCI president Anurag Thakur found out when the match was first scheduled at the ground of his home association, things don't always go to plan.

Instead Dharamsala plays host to a match that will be anything but valedictory. Australia have fought India all the way through the series, having started with a stunning upset in Pune, and now find themselves needing only a draw to go home with the trophy. India, by contrast, have had to dig particularly deep to avoid defeat, first getting decidedly pugilistic in Bengaluru, then relying heavily on the serene Cheteshwar Pujara to forge ahead of the contest in Ranchi. Even so, Steven Smith's team refused to buckle under last-day pressure, allowing them to travel to Dharamsala with confidence they can handle just about any situation.

There remain questions for both sides to answer. Virat Kohli's sore shoulder is yet another obstacle for him in a series where the Australians have kept him exceptionally quiet in terms of runs if not words. Quite apart from the physical infirmity, Kohli must find a way to escape the funk he has entered when coming out to bat all series, either attacking too soon as in Pune or finding himself starved into error as in Bengaluru or Ranchi. Equally, Australia's vice-captain David Warner reaches Dharamsala having not yet made an impression on India's bowlers; the helmsman of Sunrisers Hyderabad's 2016 IPL title has far more to offer, and in the series' decisive match he will be straining to prove it.

Among the bowlers, the physical strain of back-to-back matches at the end of a long season will loom large. Neither R Ashwin nor Nathan Lyon had as much impact as expected in Ranchi, and only partly because they missed the footmarks provided by the injured Mitchell Starc. Australia's concern about Pat Cummins' ability to cope with his workload in the third Test was underlined by precautionary scans on his back that showed no damage done. India have extra pace options in reserve, depending on how the pitch and conditions reveal themselves on match day.

In a crucible of this kind, there may of course be further flashpoints between the two opposing sides. The joking observation of Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland - in a radio interview this week - that he's not sure Kohli "knows how to spell" the word sorry was an unexpected quarter from which to stir things up once more. But as this series has shown and Dharamsala will doubtless confirm, expectation is always a chance of being confounded.

Form guide

India: DWLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Australia: DLWWW

In the spotlight

By playing the longest innings ever by an Indian Test batsman, Cheteshwar Pujara made himself Australia's No. 1 wicket-taking priority in the final Test. The tourists have enormous respect for Pujara's concentration and shot selection, but also feel that a little extra bounce could be the way to defeat him. As Josh Hazlewood put it: "Any sort of bounce is an added bonus for the quicks against most of their batters, and probably him in particular. But he's got a great temperament and I guess you've just got to try and get under his skin somehow, but he just loves batting and loves batting a long time. He's definitely a key wicket for us."

By David Warner's logic, the wheel of his overseas under-performance is bound to turn soon. This series he has hinted at taking control of a match on several occasions, whether the first morning of the series, or the start of the second-innings chase in Bengaluru. But there has also been a sense that India's bowlers know how to find a way past him, so long as they stay patient. Every other member of Australia's top six has made a major contribution at least once in this series; Dharamsala could be Warner's turn.

Team news

Kohli will undergo a fitness test on Friday night or Saturday morning to determine whether he is able to play. If he is ruled out, Iyer is likely to slot into the middle order to make his Test debut, and Ajinkya Rahane will captain the side. M Vijay may also be a doubtful starter - he did not train on Friday, and had missed the Bengaluru Test with a shoulder injury. If either or both miss out, India are unlikely to tamper with their six batsmen + keeper + four bowler combination, given the loss of so much experience from their batting line-up.

India still seem unsure whether Mohammed Shami is fit enough to last five days, so if there is any change in their bowling attack, it is likely to be the inclusion of Bhuvneshwar Kumar in potentially swing-friendly conditions, possibly at Ishant Sharma's expense.

India: 1 M Vijay/Abhinav Mukund, 2 KL Rahul, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt)/Shreyas Iyer, 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Karun Nair, 7 R Ashwin, 8 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 9 Ravindra Jadeja, 10 Bhuvneshwar Kumar/Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav

Pat Cummins has been cleared of any back trouble after his return to Test matches in Ranchi, so the likelihood is for an unchanged Australian side after Glenn Maxwell's first-innings century at No. 6.

Australia (probable) 1 David Warner, 2 Matt Renshaw, 3 Steven Smith (capt), 4 Shaun Marsh, 5 Peter Handscomb, 6 Glenn Maxwell, 7 Matthew Wade (wk), 8 Steve O'Keefe, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Josh Hazlewood.

Pitch and conditions

Dharamsala's location and altitude have tended to offer some help to pace bowlers in the past, though during last year's World Twenty20 the pitch was slow and assisting spin. The surface has a thin film of green grass that is expected to be shaved off by match morning and some help for spin can be expected.

Kohli expected it to offer "good bounce for the spinners" and "good pace off the wicket for the quicks". Dharamsala should have pleasant weather through the Test, with maximum temperatures in the low-to-mid-20s, with forecasts of rain towards the second half of the match.

Stats and trivia

  • Australia are seeking their first series win in India since 2004

  • Dharamsala will become the 27th Test venue in India

  • Should he play, Kohli will need 89 runs to avoid completing his least productive Test series as a batsman - previously 134 runs at 13.40 in England in 2014

Quotes

"I thought the way we fought out that draw was magnificent. I'm sure they [India] would be disappointed that they couldn't get the result they were after. In that regard I'd rather be in our boat than theirs."
Steven Smith

"I think the series is beautifully placed and everyone's really excited for the Test match, both sides and people watching as well. It's been a very, very exciting series of ups and downs, [a] roller-coaster ride. I hope it finishes really well and people get to see some really good cricket here as well."
Virat Kohli