When Dharmasala was inked in as the 27th Test match venue by the Indian board and the then powers that be, no one would have envisaged that the series would take an unpredictable course and the series decider would be played here, at the end of a bitterly fought series.
Australia's resolve and it's famed never-say-die attitude enabled it to scrap and eke out a fighting draw at Ranchi and as they troop out at this salubrious venue, with such scenic backdrop for a cricket setting, all they need is a draw to keep the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. It is, after all, another matter that they would never look to play for a draw – it isn’t in their DNA.
That they got out of jail renders them that vital belief needed to achieve an encore of 2004. Cricket sides, like cricketers, take so much heart from the preceding game's form and on that score, even a die-hard Indian fan may have to grudgingly hand it out to the Aussies and their remarkable chutzpah.
On the other hand, India seems to have their plate full with last minute news percolating about the injury scare to Murali Vijay, to add to the cold sweat of Captain Kohli and his fitness concerns. It is another matter that Kohli is in an alien territory in terms of Test match returns, akin to England in 2014. It is not beyond him to orchestrate another Phoenix-like comeback, for such is his tried and tested mindset and the innate quality that he possesses.
Lately, he may have looked to have tried a tad too hard aside his cluttered and confused presence (an unthinkable attribute at the start of the series) has reared its ugly head. From piping red hot form, when he plundered four double tons in four preceding series, to this lowly run of form, Kohli has seemingly seen it all in this ghastly, beastly game with its built in capacity to bite back unawares. This game is, after all, the greatest leveller!
Going by the strength of evidence on offer, the venue favours the pacemen with plenty of carry, and the spinners might enjoy the bounce. The curators don't want to leave too much of grass on the deck, given the Aussies have an in-form Pat Cummins, after a long injury forced hibernation.
To have mustered such "wind-like air speed" is a reflection of the hard yards he’s put in without putting his injury prone frame to the dreaded wringer. Cummins, coming through unscathed after such a long bowl is a testament to his fitness and is a huge positive.
He replaced the injured Starc so capably, was full of inspiration and mitigated Smith's woes. Hazelwood with his miserly lines, has found a new found ally. Australia would look to go unchanged with no spot yet for the promising leggie Swepson nor for Jackson Bird, or for that matter, Usman Khawaja.
India, on the other hand, might be hard pressed to have five bowlers in the mix, should their worst fears of losing Kohli and Vijay come true. With leading lights not firing in unison like it managed versus the other visitors, they may well play six batsmen with four bowlers with Saha to complete the side. There is every chance that Bhubaneswar Kumar and his propensity to find swing in these helpful conditions may be favoured ahead of Ishant Sharma.
India had their moments at Ranchi, and after the splendid partnership between the indomitable Pujara and the now dependable Saha, one would have thought that India would replicate the treatment it meted out to the hapless Englishmen at Chennai on the fateful last day in early December.
Alas! The difference was that the Indians had to run into the Teflon-like qualities of a dour and tireless pair of Marsh and Handscomb, so unlike the English maniacal meltdown.The Aussies may have folded like a deck of cards in Bangalore, but this side has proved time and again that it has the mettle and steel of world beaters, and its stock is so vastly different from the English or the Kiwis.
It won't be out of place to mention that India's strategy was a touch reactive on the last day. Ideally they ought to have gone for broke, but they stumbled and stymied its path with a less aggressive game plan which lacked nous; case in point being Ashwin's late introduction on the last day.
They missed a trick as the pitch wore, compounded by the lack of bite, as a result of the soft ball. Spinners love the spiteful venom the bounce garners, and once the hard ball was weathered, Ashwin looked almost like a spent force against set batsmen, already "camped in" having survived the early jitters.
Aside from Jadeja's proclivity to favour the angle from around the stumps, when the option from over the wickets might have fetched him better returns. May be it is the culmination of the longwinded home season that the bowlers were not that desperate, or maybe a tiny reflection of the scrambled brain that seemed to have plagued Virat and his peerless mindset in the last month.
As a cricketer and a neutral observer, one cannot but applaud the Aussies for their tenacious grind. Losing it's hero thus far on tour, Smith, and an off colour, Warner, and yet to scrape out a winning draw has kept their flames burning in the series.
Much like India are sweating on Kohli and his rare bout of poor form, Australia have progressed despite the scarce results from Warner’s broad blade, whose away record is
in sharp contrast to his impeccable record at home. He, like Kohli, is an inning away from firing; should both indulge in pyrotechnics as is their wont, Diwali may well arrive early in Dharamsala!
All in all, one hopes the deck to be a good cricket wicket with batsmen slated to fill their boots and unless India goes for the jugular, one gets a sneaking feeling that Australia might score big and avert a loss.
With so much of the focus weaned away from the weighty centre, it is time both the sides indulge in a grim and stoic battle, and in a manner, which Test match cricket is fabled for.