The ground staff at the VCA Stadium were seen carefully curating the pitch two days before the start of the match, including doing selective watering of the surface. They watered the middle of the pitch and the areas outside the right-handers’ off stump at one end, but left those on a good length outside the left-handers’ off stump at both ends bone dry. There was also brushing and selective mowing of certain areas.
Speaking from the team hotel on Wednesday morning, Cummins, the Australia captain, was not drawn into a discussion on pitch preparation, but did note that it would be a factor in Australia’s selection for the match.
“I think it is a factor over here,” he said. “With so much traffic from the right-handers bowling, at times there is a bit more out there for the left-handers. The Indian line-up is going to be packed full of right-handers, so I think it plays a small factor.”
Cummins ruled allrounder Cameron Green out of the series opener against India. Matt Renshaw had taken his place in Australia’s last Test match, but keeping him in for this one would mean five left-hand batters in the top seven having to deal with the bone-dry area of the pitch that is likely to get chewed up, as both teams have only right-arm quicks in their attack. While Cummins did not explicitly say that put Handscomb ahead in the pecking order, the chances of his recall seem to be increasing.
Australia are set to play a four-man bowling attack with Cummins and Scott Boland to play as the two quicks in the absence of the injured duo of Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. Nathan Lyon will be their lead spinner. That leaves left-arm spinner Ashton Agar and offspinner Todd Murphy fighting for the last spot in the XI.
“I think he’d be as prepared as he could be,” Cummins said of the uncapped Murphy. “He’s been bowling beautifully in the nets over here. He’s started really well for Victoria in first-class cricket. If he got the nod, he’s got Nathan Lyon down the other end that he can work with; he’s ready. Everyone in the squad here has had really good preparation. Whoever we pick is 100% ready to go.”
The fear of playing two specialist offspinners – and leaving Agar out – against India’s right-hand dominant batting line-up may have dissipated within the Australian camp after seeing the pitch on Tuesday.
“It’s a factor. These conditions, they really spin, so just really good bowling is what you’re after, being consistent time and time again,” Cummins said. “I don’t think you need to go searching for anything more; the conditions will come to you.
“You’ve seen Nath be really, really effective over here [with] a lot of bat-pad, leg-slip catches for the right-handers. So ideally, you’ve got variety in any attack, but I don’t think it has to be the case just for that sake.”
Cummins has had an incredible record of winning tosses as Australia Test captain, with seven of his last eight and nine of 13 overall so far falling in his favour. He is hoping to keep that run of success going in Nagpur, but believes the toss may not be as big a factor if the pitch is a raging turner.
“I think we’ll bat,” Cummins laughed. “I think when the conditions spin from day one, it’s actually not. I think you’ve seen India’s record. They win just as many games batting second as they do batting first. I think it can be overstated when the conditions do spin really quickly.”
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo