Despite opener issues Australia remain deserved Test series favourites against India — so is selecting Rishabh Pant a risk the tourists need to take?
Pant’s 73-ball ton against Australia A was a timely reminder of the damage he can do at the back-end of an innings.
Blasting 22 from the final over to get there, the diminutive left-hander dazzled under lights, cracking the pink ball to all parts of an empty SCG.
The innings even impressed an otherwise cranky Allan Border, on commentary for Fox Cricket.
While it was an impressive knock, there are certain caveats too.
Pant brought up the century when the tour game was meandering, with the pressure gauge dialled down.
The bowling, too, was limited at that stage of Day 2.
But there’s little doubting his unique ability to take the game away from an opposition in short time.
Both his Test tons (away against England and Australia) attest to that.
The Indian selectors now face the unenviable task of picking between Pant and Wriddhiman Saha, who remains the frontrunner.
Saha has his nose in front largely because of Pant’s poor last 12 months.
In his past two Test series (against the West Indies and New Zealand), the left-hander has failed to pass 30.
He also had a lacklustre IPL this season, scoring just one half-century in 14 innings at a strike rate of 113.95.
Saha, by contrast, passed 50 twice in just four games, ticking along at an impressive 139.86 for Sunrisers Hyderabad.
The veteran is also, by any measure, the cleaner gloveman who is the obvious choice when India play at home or on other tricky wickets.
Saha is wonderful to watch when Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are making it grip and spit off a length.
However, the prospect of wicket-keeping on these shores is a far easier task, and arguably the most straightforward in the world.
Australian wickets provide the pace (albeit, not as it once was) and carry that means a ‘solid’ (rather than outstanding) keeper can often suffice.
As such, bypassing Saha isn’t the risk it is in other conditions.
While the headlines this week are focused on Australia finding a competent opening pair, it’s easy to forget that the home side start this series as relatively strong favourites.
If Justin Langer’s side plays to their ability, they will win.
Their favouritism is reinforced when skipper Virat Kohli heads home after just one Test.
It’s India, then, that could be forced to make the aggressive selections to swing the ledger.
Pant is that aggressive pick.
Picking him could be the move it needs to make in a series it starts as underdogs in.
There’s a school of thought in selection that one should opt for a player the opposition would least like to see in the XI.
And in this case, Australia would be far less wary of Saha than they are of Pant.
The 23-year-old got going in all seven innings last time he toured Australia.
His lowest score was 25, and he finished the series with 350 runs (second only to Cheteshwar Pujara) at a strike rate of 73.99 — higher than any other player.
And it’s this aspect of his game that could give India an x-factor.
Sports opinion delivered daily
If Pujara (with the help of Ajinkya Rahane) can replicate his form of 2018-19 and ground-down Australia’s frontline quicks, having a player like Pant who can strike at a run-a-ball later in the innings can completely shift the momentum of a Test match.
The Gilchrist role, if you will.
Pant remains the only Indian wicketkeeper to score Test centuries in both Australia and England, and has a first-class average of just under 50.
Saha might be a safer option, but Pant is the player who may just play a crucial role in India’s quest for back-to-back victories on Australian soil.