One of the talking points at the beginning of the ongoing Test series in England was Ravichandran Ashwin’s absence from the playing XI. It was a tough call for India’s captain Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri to leave out the off-spinner who is the second-ranked Test bowler in the world currently.
But Kohli and Shastri had decided to fight fire with fire. They were not going to put themselves at a disadvantage in pace-friendly conditions by fielding three pace bowlers against the opposition’s four, which has usually been the case on past tours. They had learnt their lesson in the World Test Championship final they lost to New Zealand in June at Lord’s, when they made the blunder of playing two spinners and three pace bowlers while the Kiwis went in with a five-man pace battery to gain a decisive advantage.
Still, most pundits criticised the move to drop Ashwin after the WTC final. They argued that he should have at least found a place ahead of Ravindra Jadeja, the sole spinner India picked in the first two Tests against England.
But again, the Kohli-Shastri logic in picking Jadeja was sound. No doubt, Ashwin is the more accomplished spinner, but Jadeja was in the team as a batting all-rounder. Ashwin too has played some doughty knocks, but in easier batting conditions. To stick him at No.7 on English wickets would give too big an advantage to a rival whose batting lineup extends to No.9.
Jadeja has proved his worth with the bat, walking out to the centre when India were at a precarious 142-5 in the first innings of the first Test at Nottingham, and scoring 56 to give India a vital lead of 95. He repeated the feat in the first innings of the second Test at Lord’s, scoring 40 with the tailenders for company and taking India to a respectable total after a slump.
With Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, and Ajinkya Rahane averaging less than 30 over the last 10-15 Tests, the Indian middle order is vulnerable. And the team can’t rely on the pace bowlers to bail them out with the bat again, like Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah did on the final day’s morning at Lord’s.
We tend to forget that we used to play with six specialist batsmen and a wicket-keeper not so long ago. It’s the batting ability of Jadeja and wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant that has given the team the luxury of playing five bowlers. So the think tank did the sensible thing by picking the better batsman among the two spinners, and a pace quartet to match England’s in English conditions.
The results so far have more than vindicated the selection. A washout on the last day denied India a great chance to win the first Test. Then India came out on top in a see-saw battle in the second Test at Lord’s, when the Indian pace quartet skittled England out for 120 in the final innings.
The fourth pace bowler—Shardul Thakur in the first Test and Ishant Sharma in the second Test—accounted for nine out of the 40 English wickets in the first two Tests. But that’s not all. What a pace quartet gives a captain is the ability to maintain relentless pressure from both ends when clouds overhead and grass underfoot make swing and seam a constant threat. If Kohli is forced to bring on a spinner after 10-12 overs of pace with the new ball, that’s a big relief to batsmen on a seaming wicket where a spinner has little purchase.
Test match batting is as much a matter of concentration and belief as skill. England’s collapse on the last day at Lord’s, when the pitch was in fact more placid than on previous days, came about because of the psychological pressure of facing one testing spell after another. A four-pronged pace attack could keep that up for over 50 overs without losing its zing, unlike several occasions in the past when a winded unit could not polish off the lower order as the ball got older.
Test wins in the so-called SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia) don’t come easy for teams from the sub-continent. One reason is that the latter have lacked the gumption to pick horses for courses. India fielded only two pace bowlers at Lord’s in the previous series against England in 2018, with batting all-rounder Hardik Pandya chipping in as a third seamer. Not surprisingly, India got thrashed, outgunned by a four-man English pace unit in conditions ideal for that type of bowling.
Virat Kohli is India’s most successful Test captain on paper, but only five out of his 37 Test wins have been in SENA countries, where he has lost 12 Tests (counting the WTC final) and drawn three. His first SENA Test win came against South Africa in Johannesburg in January 2018. And India’s team composition that time? Four pace bowlers plus a batting all-rounder who bowled medium pace, which was exactly the same as that of the South African team. India lost the previous two closely fought Tests in which South Africa had four specialist pace bowlers to India’s three.
India’s famous win in Brisbane in January this year, which clinched the Australia series under Rahane’s captaincy, is best remembered for Rishabh Pant’s 89 not out on the final day. What was equally important was that India’s bowling unit, comprising four pace bowlers and a spinner, took 20 Aussie wickets.
It’s odd then that India opt so rarely for a pace attack to match that of the home team on away tours, even though there’s no dearth of pace bowlers in the country now. And when the captain and coach do make that call, they take flak from all corners.
Admittedly, it’s tough to leave out a bowler of Ashwin’s class, who has been in peak form since the Australia series. What’s more important, however, is giving the team the best chance to win, taking into account the conditions and the team’s balance. Kohli and Shastri would do well to stick to their winning combination, because Headingley in Leeds, the venue for the third Test starting on Wednesday, has been a seam-friendly ground.
England will come harder at the Indians, with a rejuvenated Jimmy Anderson raring for revenge after a nine-day break. India’s middle order is shaky, but Pujara and Rahane should retain their spots with their crucial century stand on the fourth day of the second Test, after rash shots by Rohit Sharma and Kohli had reduced them to 55 for 3.
Kohli should heed Sunil Gavaskar’s advice, which he shared while commentating, to avoid shuffling across so much that he’s playing at balls outside off stump he can leave well alone. Meanwhile, Sharma should realise there’s no percentage in a hook shot that produces two or three sixes before giving away what is at the moment the most valuable wicket in the Indian lineup. And how many more times will England’s mainstay Joe Root edge through a vacant second slip or third slip before the Indian captain starts attacking him more with fielders in catching positions? So the good news is that there’s still ample room for improvement in the Indian team, tactically.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.