Ranchi, March 15: The spotlight is firmly trained on the pitch as an ambitious India brace up for what is expected to be a high-voltage battle of attrition against Australia in the third cricket Test starting here on Thursday (March 16).
Since the amicable end to the acrimonious DRS saga, the focus has shifted to the pitch at the Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA), which is organising it's first-ever Test match.
The four-match Border-Gavaskar Trophy is locked at 1-1 and the game at former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni's home town would be crucial to the outcome of the series.
The wicket for the first Test was rated poor while the Bengaluru surface, where the second match was played, has been deemed "below average" by match referee Chris Broad.
Trailing 0-1 following a shocking 331-run defeat in the opener, India will enter the match with new-found confidence having scripted a brilliant fightback in Bengaluru.
Australian captain Steve Smith had stirred up a controversy in Bengaluru by seeking advice from the dressing room on using the contentious DRS technology for an lbw dismissal at a crucial juncture.
Heading into the match, both teams are wary of the pitch.
A few days ago, Dhoni, who is currently in Delhi leading Jharkhand in the domestic one-dayers, was seen with the curator during the pitch preparations.
On the surface, the 22-yard strip looks tailor-made for spinners, even as the local officials maintain it will last the distance.
Head coach Anil Kumble took a long look at the pitch in consultation with East Zone curator Ashish Bhowmick, assessing its firmness.
It was watered in the morning and there were a few spells of rain about a week back, explaining its moisture-laden appearance.
Having posted 600-plus totals in their previous three innings before this series, the home team's batting is yet to live upto expectations. None of India's big guns have yet posted a century.
With three half centuries, KL Rahul has been the leading run-getter in the series, while Kohli, who is having a rare lean patch against the Aussies, will look to break the drought.
Kohli has just 40 runs from four innings, a dry spell coming after a year full of runs, in which the Indian captain slammed 1457 runs from nine Tests and led the side to a 19-match unbeaten run before the Pune debacle.
India owe it to Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, who revived the home team's chances in Bengaluru with their 118-run fifth-wicket partnership, the only century partnership of the series so far.
Having recovered from a shoulder injury, opener Murali Vijay looks set replace Abhinav Mukund, which will give the opening combination a more settled look, for the crucial encounter.
A win away from retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the Aussies have received a body blow when their pace spearhead Mitchell Starc was ruled out of the series after suffering a stress fracture.
The left-arm pacer has been replaced by Pat Cummins who has not played a game after his eye-catching debut in South Africa in 2011 when he had a seven-wicket match haul.
Now fresh from his eight-wicket haul in the Sheffield Shield, Cummins looks set for a second Test 'debut' and it remains to be seen whether the right-arm quickie fills up the void left by Starc. Cummins could get nod ahead of Jackson Bird.
With Mitchell Marsh returning to Australia with a shoulder injury, the visitors also need to find a player who can take up the vacant spot of an all-rounder. Glenn Maxwell is the front-runner to take that place but Ashton Agar and Marcus Stoinis will also be in contention for the No. 6 slot.
A part of the touring team, Maxwell is yet to feature in a Test since November 2014 in Abu Dhabi. Stoinis, on the other hand, arrived here only last week and the team think-tank might give him some more time to adjust to the conditions.
Nathan Lyon, who snared eight Indian wickets in the first innings of the second Test, is also nursing a finger injury but the off-spinner is more than likely to get fit before the match begins.
Yet to make a Test debut, Mitchell Swepson has been called a surprise weapon by the great Steve Waugh and even as he gives them an option, it remains to be seen if Australia gamble on the leg-spinner.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wicketkeeper), Ravichandaran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav and Abhinav Mukund.
Australia: Steve Smith (captain), David Warner, Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Matthew Wade (wicketkeeper), Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Stephen O'Keefe, Matthew Renshaw, Marcus Stoinis and Mitchell Swepson.
Match Starts at 9.30 AM IST on Thursday.
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