Nagpur:India will miss the services of in-form Gautam Gambhir as they go into the fourth and final cricket Test against Australia on Thursday, seeking to wrest the Border-Gavaskar Trophy despite a weakened batting line up and a brand new opening combination.
Gambhir's absence means that India will have a new opening partner for Virender Sehwag for the crucial match with 24-year-old Tamil Nadu opener M Vijay set to make his Test debut.
In a highly controversial decision, the ICC Appeals Commissioner Justice Albie Sachs yesterday upheld a one-Test ban on Gambhir without even hearing him which the BCCI refused to accept, saying it violated principles of natural justice.
Gambhir has been the nightmare for the Australian bowlers in the series so far having scored 463 runs, inclusive of a double hundred and a century, for an average in excess of 77.
And Justice Sachs' decision has dealt a huge blow to India's hopes of either winning or drawing the crucial Test on a virgin pitch at the newly constructed Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium at Jamtha.
The Delhi batsman's form in the series has rattled the Australians so much so that their leading scorer in the series, Mike Hussey, said yesterday his team would be happy if Gambhir is unable to play.
The focus will also be on Sourav Ganguly's who will play his last Test and the Indians should be careful not to get distracted by the ocassion.
A largely unknown opener M Vijay has been pitch-forked straightaway into the thick of the hard-fought battle against Australia from domestic cricket by the selectors as replacement for Gambhir. Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni has indicated that Vijay will play the match, which means that the Indian think tank is not to keen to experiment with specialist positions.
The other option for the team is to once again summon the services of Rahul Dravid to bail out the side by opening the innings as he had done in the past with a large degree of success, notably on the tour of Pakistan in 2006 when he led the side.
But Dravid, no longer the impenetrable "Wall" and with a very modest tally of 117 runs in five innings in the series, may not be in the right frame of mind to do the all-important job of giving the Indian team a solid start for middle order stalwarts Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman -- set to join the 100-Test club -- and Ganguly to build upon a huge edifice.
The hosts were already a bit unsettled before the Gambhir blow by the retirement of their leading wicket-taker and skipper Anil Kumble at the end of the drawn Test in New Delhi.
With the imminent retirement of another veteran campaigner and former captain Sourav Ganguly to follow after the conclusion of the last Test here, it would be a monumental task for the home team's players to maintain their concentration and focus after having taken a 1-0 lead in the series at Mohali.
Still, the team with the aggressive Dhoni at the helm, is capable of pulling itself up by the bootstraps in the face of severe odds though India has not done well in this city in the recent past having tasted defeat four years ago and with it the series loss against the same opponents on a green-top wicket at the old VCA stadium. On the plus side for the hosts is the fact that the bowling attack is largely undisturbed barring the absence of Kumble which gives chance for Amit Mishra to play his third Test on the trot, with the fit-again Harbhajan Singh who is one short of completing 300 Test wickets at the other end -- a combination that served the team well in whipping the visitors by a huge margin at Mohali.
But the Australians have also moved on from that crushing defeat and the top-order batsmen, including India's past nemesis Matthew Hayden, have rediscovered their wonted touch punctuated by their strong reply to the hosts' plus-600 score in the drawn third encounter in New Delhi.
The rhythm and speed exhibited by their spearhead Brett Lee in the second innings at Ferozeshah Kotla, after struggling in the first two Tests, is also a big plus for the visitors who are mulling how to harness their bowling unit into taking 20 wickets and clinch the all-important Test here.
There are indications that leg spinner Cameron White will make way for uncapped offie Jason Krejza to add some more bite to the tourists' less-than-average spin attack, but even the pace attack may see a change.
The toss is expected to be of vital importance as the pitch and the ground conditions are new to both the teams. Batting first could turn out to be a masterstroke, though Vidarbha Cricket Association officials said that the pitch has been rolled continuously for almost a month in the run-up to this encounter. India have a 50:50 win-loss record in the earlier venue in the heart of the city. Significantly in the last two Tests in the Orange City the home team was defeated by Australia and had to fight hard to force a draw against England two years ago.
Dhoni and Co. Would be hoping a change of ground would bring in happy tidings this time around, despite the off-field happenings over the last few days.
The Teams (from):
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma, S Badrinath, M Vijay and R P Singh.
Australia: Ricky Ponting (capt), Matthew Hayden, Simon Katich, Mike Hussey, Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Shane Watson, Cameron White, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Stuart Clark, Jason Krejza, Doug Bollinger, Peter Siddle and Shaun Marsh.
Umpires: Billy Bowden and Aleem Dar.
Third umpire: Suresh Shastri
Match Referee: Chris Broad.
Hours of play: 9:30-11:30 am; 12:15-2:15 pm; 2:30 to 4:30 pm.