India levelled the series in Visakhapatnam on Monday after losing the first Test against England in Hyderabad. The result masks poor selection that has hamstrung the home team against a bold opponent, that has been doing the best they can with three rookie spinners on alien turf.
As soon as he came on to bowl in Vizag, India’s left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav exposed the folly of leaving him out of the previous Test. He got opener Ben Duckett in his second over, and should have had Ollie Pope’s scalp too in the same over. England’s centurion from the first Test escaped, as wicketkeeper K.S. Bharat missed an easy stumping.
Nevertheless, Yadav went on to claim three wickets in the England first innings on a good batting wicket. It was quite the feat as the world’s highest ranked bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin was wicketless, and the third Indian spinner, Axar Patel, could manage just a solitary wicket. It was Yadav’s supporting role to speedster Jasprit Bumrah’s magical six wickets, that gave India a match-winning lead of 143 runs.
Yadav was sorely missed during the first Test in Hyderabad, where India frittered away a 190-run first innings lead by allowing England to amass 420 from a precarious 163/5. Patel, who was preferred to Yadav as the third spinner alongside Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, got only one wicket in that England second innings. Pope, whose top score in India previously was 34, made 196 with three lower-order partnerships.
A hamstring injury to Jadeja brought Yadav into the playing eleven for the second Test. But India’s bowling remained handicapped. This was evident on the fourth morning during a long spell of 13 overs in which Axar Patel’s only success was the wicket of nightwatchman Rehan Ahmed.
As things stand, even though India have five bowlers in the playing eleven, only three of them are contributing substantially to the tally of wickets. Bumrah’s pace bowling partner, Mohammed Siraj, has contributed even less than Patel. Siraj bowled 11 overs for 50 runs, and took no wickets in the first Test. His replacement, Mukesh Kumar, bowled 12 overs for 70 runs, and took the sole wicket of tailender Shoaib Bashir.
Going by their track record, the pitches for the next two Tests in Rajkot and Ranchi are likely to be as bald as the ones in Hyderabad and Vizag, where only pacers of the class of James Anderson and Bumrah could take wickets. So India could take a leaf out of England’s bold playbook to pick just one fast bowler and include a fourth spinner. Even if that is another all-rounder like Patel, who chips in with an odd wicket, it would at least strengthen the batting. Apart from Patel, either Washington Sundar or Saurabh Kumar, who were both on the bench in Vizag, could play that role.
Another option is to replace the second pacer with a sixth specialist batsman. That would mean playing only four bowlers, which is a bit risky in a five-day match. But it may be a lesser risk than getting bowled out for a low score and losing a Test, as they did in Hyderabad.
India have been skating on thin ice with their batting, because in addition to playing five bowlers, they have a wicketkeeper-batsman who appears out of his depth in international waters. Kona Bharat has a batting average of 20 with a top score of 44 in seven Tests. He has also been fumbling with the ball behind the wickets, missing the important stumping of Pope in Vizag, which denied Kuldeep Yadav a double strike in the very first spell of his comeback.
K.L. Rahul is expected to be back for the next Test after recovering from a quadriceps injury. But given his recurrent injuries, it’s unlikely that he can double up as a wicketkeeper-batsman. That leaves young Dhruv Jurel, who was inducted into the squad for the first two Tests, as the only option to Bharat. Ishan Kishan made himself unavailable, and for some unfathomable reason, a proven international wicketkeeper-batsman like Sanju Samson is nowhere in the reckoning.
If it’s Bharat or Jurel keeping wickets in the next two Tests, the case for a sixth specialist batsman in place of a non-performing second seamer on bare, slow tracks becomes stronger. In that case, Rahul could simply come into the side as a sixth batsman, without dropping any of the five who played in Vizag. But it’s also worth reconsidering the selection of two out of those five batsmen in India’s Vizag lineup.
Ever since fast bowlers sniffed out Shreyas Iyer’s vulnerability to bouncers, his confidence has been shot. It appears to have even affected his handling of spinners, as he feels compelled to hit out instead of rotating the strike. He failed in two series against Australia and South Africa before the current one against England. The last time he got a Test fifty was against Bangladesh in 2022.
Apart from Iyer, debutant Rajat Patidar did not contribute substantially. He appeared unsure against leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed, who got him out in both innings. So the question is whether to give Patidar another chance or bring in Sarfaraz Khan, who was on the bench in Vizag.
But a better alternative to both Patidar and Khan may be Sai Sudarshan, who made a classy 55 not out on his ODI debut against South Africa in Johannesburg in December. Being a left-hander, he would be a good foil to England’s left-arm spinner Tom Hartley and leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed in the shaky Indian middle order.
In Vizag, apart from Yashasvi Jaiswal making a double century and Shubman Gill scoring a century, no other Indian batsman crossed 50. The third highest score was Axar Patel’s vital 45 in an underwhelming Indian total of 255 in the second innings.
Earlier, in Hyderabad, only three Indian batsmen crossed 50—Jaiswal, Rahul, and Jadeja—and none of them went on to triple figures. The second innings collapse, where India could only score 202 in a chase of 231, was a strong indicator that the batting lineup needed more heft. But India still went with the same combination in Vizag, where the batting was even thinner in the absence of Jadeja. The home team got away with it, thanks to the brilliance of Jaiswal and Gill’s luck in surviving three close shaves before coming into his own.
What it boils down to is that India left holes in both their bowling and batting by selecting a non-performing second seamer and a wicketkeeper who doesn’t contribute much with the bat. They tried to cover that up in the first Test by picking a third spinner for his batting rather than wicket-taking ability.
What happens when you focus on ticking boxes, is that you miss the strongest options. England, on the other hand, did away with the conventional notion of having two fast bowlers to share the new ball. ‘Spin to win in India’ was their mantra even though they could only call upon three rookie spinners and the part-time off-spin of Joe Root.
Fortune favours the brave. Hartley made a stunning Test debut in Hyderabad with 9 wickets, Bashir debuted in Vizag with 5 wickets, Ahmed has picked up 8 wickets in this series, and Root’s 5 wickets helped win the first Test.
India have to pull out all stops to maintain their winning run at home against this spirited English side whose best Test batsman, Root, is yet to fire. India’s think tank, comprising head selector Ajit Agarkar, head coach Rahul Dravid, and captain Rohit Sharma, can’t afford to go into another Test match with non-performing assets.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.