Indian camp keeps wary eye on protocol breach probe

When a cricket fan in Australia uploaded a short video of five Indian cricketers in a Melbourne restaurant on social media, one would have hardly imagined it would snowball into a major controversy.

The players—vice-captain Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Navdeep Saini and Prithvi Shaw—have been placed in isolation. Cricket Australia (CA) and the Indian cricket board (BCCI) are investigating whether any breach of bio-security protocol has happened.

A CA statement on Saturday also spoke of “separating the group of players from the broader Indian and Australian squads when travelling and at the training venue.” There has been no official word on whether, in case a breach is established, the five players would be excluded from the third Test, starting in Sydney on Thursday. The Indian camp will be anxious as many senior players are already absent.

If the five have to be left out, the Indian team will undergo key changes from the side that featured in the brilliant win at Melbourne to square the four-Test series 1-1.

Three of those involved—Sharma, Gill and Shaw—are openers. Gill replaced Shaw at the MCG and the debutant impressed in both innings with positive stroke play. Sharma, who joined the team after a 14-day hard quarantine in Sydney on arriving from India, is expected to play in the third Test, most likely as opener in place of Mayank Agarwal or Gill.

If the batting trio is excluded, KL Rahul is the front-runner to play and partner Agarwal at the top of the order. The Kings XI Punjab skipper had a stellar IPL, finishing as the tournament top-scorer (670 runs). He also had a good run in the middle order in the ODIs and T20Is that preceded the Tests, scoring two fifties. The 28-year-old has played most of his 36 Tests as an opener, scoring all five centuries in that slot. His maiden Test century also came at the SCG, in 2015.

Rahul though is behind in the pecking order for Tests following a poor run since his 149 at The Oval in September, 2018. He has not managed a fifty in 11 completed innings since, all as opener. Those seven Tests include three in Australia in 2018-19 when he made just 57 runs in five innings.

Pant’s absence would see Wriddhiman Saha’s comeback. After India was bundled out for their lowest Test score of 36 in Adelaide, Pant replaced Saha and lived up to his credentials as a better batsman. Saha’s wicket-keeping though is way ahead of his younger team-mate.

Saini is in the reckoning with fellow pace bowlers Shardul Thakur and Thangarasu Natarajan to replace the injured Umesh Yadav.

Saini is the fastest among the three and is the only one among them who has been in the Test squad from the start. The team management though picked Mohammed Siraj over Saini at the MCG, after Shami fractured his forearm in Adelaide. There have been reports India could give Natarajan a Test debut for the variety he brings as a left-arm pacer.

Thakur has played 62 first-class matches and Natarajan 20. His only Test, versus West Indies at Hyderabad in 2018, though ended in pain after hobbling off injured into his second over.

Thakur can swing the ball and has six first-class fifties. Natarajan impressed on T20 and ODI debuts with his ability to bowl yorkers and slower-ball variations.

The eleven in the MCG Test—besides Gill, Pant, Siraj and Umesh Yadav who was injured—comprised Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, skipper Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah.

Players are unlikely to be excluded if one goes by the action taken in the Big Bash League (BBL). Chris Lynn and Dan Lawrence were allowed to play on despite a breach of Covid-19 protocol after posing with a fan for a picture. That incident took place in Canberra on December 12 and two days later they played for Brisbane Heat against Sydney Thunder. They had to maintain social distance with the other players.

Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Indian squad arrived at the MCG for training on Sunday in two buses with the five players travelling in one of them. Gill though boarded the bus with other team members while returning. The report quoted an Indian team spokesman as saying that social distancing was observed.

The five players will take the same chartered flight to Sydney with the rest of the squad on Monday while observing social distancing, Australian media reports said.

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