All-rounder Axar Patel is the second highest run-scorer in the India-Australia Test series, second only to Indian skipper Rohit Sharma. And yet, he batted at No. 9 in the Indore Test, remaining not out in both innings with 12 and 15, as he ran out of partners. How many runs did India lose out by not sending him higher up in the batting order, and did that contribute to their defeat?
In a low-scoring series being played on spin-friendly wickets, even an additional 50 runs can mean the difference between winning and losing. India surely missed a trick by slotting a player in such great form at No. 9. It’s not too late to rectify this in the last Test starting in Ahmedabad on Thursday, with India still leading 2-1 against a resurgent Australian side.
Too often the coach and captain allow preconceived perceptions to influence their decisions. Patel is seen as a bowling all-rounder—that is, a bowler who can bat a bit. That may have been the case in the past, but he has looked as good as, if not better, than most of India’s top order batsmen, especially against spin.
Patel’s batting average of 92.5 in the ongoing series is more than twice the next highest average. After Sharma’s 207 and Patel’s 185, only Virat Kohli with 111 and Ravindra Jadeja with 107 have crossed 100 runs cumulatively in the three Tests so far from the Indian camp. With batsmen on both sides struggling to handle the spin on these interesting tracks, it’s a gold mine if an all-rounder looks at ease with the bat. But what good is that if he has to wait for seven wickets to fall before getting a chance to bat?
India’s string of five right-handed specialist batsmen and a right-handed wicketkeeper-batsman, in the absence of Rishabh Pant, makes a case for breaking it up with a left-handed all-rounder. And Jadeja did bat ahead of Shreyas Iyer and Srikar Bharat. But why not Patel too, seeing that he has scored nearly twice as many runs as Jadeja despite batting much lower down the order?
He could have at least come out ahead of Bharat and Ravichandran Ashwin. In fact, if he bats at No. 4, before Kohli, with Jadeja at No. 6, it would be harder for the Aussie bowlers to get into a rhythm. Four of the top eight run-getters in the series are left-handers, including Patel and Jadeja from India, and Australia’s Usman Khawaja and Travis Head.
India’s overwhelming home advantage with spin has given them 15 consecutive series wins. The home team’s sub-optimal selections and strategies have often got brushed under the carpet because visiting teams just did not have a good enough spin attack. The last time India lost a home series was over a decade ago in 2012 when left-arm spinner Monty Panesar and off-spinner Graeme Swann of England made the visiting side competitive.
The current series got off to a familiar start with India winning the first two Tests, despite faulty selections and poor top order batting. But some out-of-the-box moves by Australia, with their backs to the wall, have now posed a challenge to the home team. In fact, Australia were better placed than India to win the second Test in Delhi too, before they committed hara-kiri with the bat in the second innings.
Then the visitors batted more intelligently in Indore, and the bold moves they had made in selection finally kicked in. They took a hard call in the first Test itself, leaving out the experienced but off-colour left-arm spinner, Ashton Agar, to field a rookie, Todd Murphy, even though that made the bowling attack lopsided with two seamers and two off-spinners. They went a step further in the second Test, fielding only one seamer and including another rookie spinner, left-armer Matthew Kuhnemann.
With both Murphy and Kuhnemann hitting their stride, and the top Aussie spinner, Nathan Lyon, finding the right pace and length for the conditions, it was India’s turn to panic, as the ball turned and spat in Indore. Like the Aussies had done in the second innings in Delhi, India’s top order batsmen tried to hit their way out of trouble instead of trusting their defence to play out the difficult morning session on the first day.
Although India have an unassailable 2-1 lead going into the fourth and final Test, they desperately need a win in Ahmedabad to qualify for the World Test Championship final. Now they need to make out-of-the-box moves just as much as Australia did after getting thrashed in the first Test. Will coach Rahul Dravid be as bold as his Australian counterpart?
India have a hidden trump card in left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav, who strangely hasn’t played a single Test after his player-of-the-match performance in the first Test in Bangladesh in December. His googlies would be a new challenge for the Australian batsmen who have been working hard to come to terms with Ashwin and Jadeja.
India have a spin trio on paper, but Axar Patel has taken only one wicket so far. They need a third wicket-taking spinner, but including Kuldeep Yadav would require the tough call to leave out a seamer, and go into the Ahmedabad Test with four spinners and only one seamer, because Axar has to be included for his batting. The axe would have to fall on Mohammed Siraj, who has just one wicket from three Tests. Will Dravid be brave or play it safe?
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.