Day one of the fourth Test ended with India just about hanging in there. They had lost the toss, their batting had crumbled again, but somehow they were hanging in there. Half-centuries by Virat Kohli and Shardul Thakur played a part as did Jasprit Bumrah’s double strike, but Umesh Yadav’s dismissal of Joe Root probably being the biggest moment of the day.
Each of these performances were undoubtedly impressive. Heading into Day two with a fighting chance, despite six of the top seven batsmen contributing a total of 65 runs, was the result of a number of gritty little fightbacks.
But day one at The Oval was largely a continuation of the previous Test, with England holding the upper hand for the most part. And looking at India’s struggles, one couldn’t help but wonder if they had even given themselves enough of a chance to begin with.
The mode of dismissals left a lot to be desired but did captain Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri’s decisions in terms of the team combination add to the difficulties?
Ashwin Ravichandran is currently placed at No 2 in the ICC Test rankings for bowlers, behind Australian pacer Pat Cummins. The next spinner on that list is Nathan Lyon, at No 20. Ashwin has been one of the best spinners in red ball cricket, if not the best, for a number of years now. He had dominated England earlier this year and ahead of the ongoing series, he had further honed his skills and picked a six-for in a County game.
But for the fourth Test running, there was no place for Ashwin in the Indian XI.
Ravindra Jadeja was picked as the lone spinner again and at the toss, this was Kohli’s explanation for the decision: “England has four left-handers, so a good match-up for Jadeja, with our seamers bowling over the wicket.”
Team combination and nature of the pitch have been cited as reasons earlier for dropping Ashwin, but to use England’s four left-handers as the reason for picking Jadeja over Ashwin made little sense. Ashwin is the most successful bowler against left-handed batsmen in the history of Test cricket.
Kohli has kept insisting that a five-bowler attack is the way to go. For four consecutive Tests, how India haven’t found a way to have Ashwin in their top five bowlers is quite the mystery.
India lost their third wicket with 39 runs on the board, and out walked Jadeja. He had scored a total of 133 runs in five innings in the series up until then. And he was being sent at No 5 in place of Ajinkya Rahane, who had scored a total of 95 runs in his five previous innings.
Now, one can assume that this switch was made to keep the left hand-right hand combination going, with Kohli batting at the other end. But then the question worth asking is this: would Kohli ever send Jadeja in place of himself at No 4 for the sake of this strategy?
Rahane is struggling for form, there is no doubt about it. He got a crucial 61 in the second innings at Lord’s and that has been it. He needs confidence, but the decision to demote him would have probably taken away whatever little he had of it.
He is the vice-captain of the team, he is on his third Test tour of England, he has proved his worth in overseas conditions in the past, you have backed him to perform by including him in the XI – why then would you tinker with his position?
This is what Kohli had to say after the third Test when he was asked about why India don’t include an extra batsman: “If your top six (including keeper) don’t do the job there is no guarantee that the extra guy can bail you out. If you don’t have the ability or resources to take 20 wickets in a Test match, then you are already playing for two results and that’s not how we play.”
This argument does have merit as you can attack with the ball at all times if you have five bowlers at your disposal. But perhaps India should’ve looked a little more closely at the other side as well – where their batting order folds repeatedly.
Having an ultra aggressive strategy with the ball is great, but it looks out of place if your batting is this fragile. If your top six don’t do the job then it would indeed help to have a seventh. And besides, England is one of the most conducive places for fast bowlers. Instead of putting all his faith in a six-batsmen strategy, perhaps Kohli should put it in a four-bowler strategy.
Kohli often speaks about putting ego aside. But the rigidity he has shown in his decision making of late says otherwise. For long, he has been a believer in the ‘horses for courses’ policy but in England, he’s either been backing the wrong horse or simply been looking at the course.
For now, India are still hanging on but if things do go south from here, perhaps Kohli and the Indian team management might want to relook their initial strategy rather than just be stubborn about it. After all, there is no harm in going with Plan B if Plan A fails.