“We’ll certainly not throw in the towel [in the fifth Test],” said India captain Virat Kohli as his side lost the fourth Test in Southampton by 60 runs, thereby handing England an unassailable 3-1 lead in the five-match series.
Kohli’s words were echoed by Ravi Shastri ahead of the final Test at The Oval. “What the scoreline doesn’t say is that India could have been 3-1 or it could have been 2-2, and my team knows it,” the head coach said.
A victory at The Oval for India will have little bearing on the end result, apart from maybe providing Shastri the leverage to again claim that this is a good travelling team. But what it also presents is a chance for the Indian camp to use their bench strength – a supposed luxury that Shastri has talked up.
Having ended his notorious streak of tinkering with the playing XI 38 consecutive times in the fourth Test, Kohli, in all probability, is expected to ring in some changes again on Friday at The Oval. The India captain’s steely gaze from the South Africa tour earlier this year, where his team bagged a famous Test victory in Jo’burg, transformed into a furrowed brow in England as the top-order batsmen around him fell like nine pins.
Some of the answers Kohli is searching for lie in the post-mortem that followed the humiliation at Lord’s in the second Test. A misfiring Dinesh Karthik was replaced by rookie Rishabh Pant. Murali Vijay’s runs had alarmingly dried up and Shikhar Dhawan earned his opening spot back after being dropped for Lord’s. Armed with an improved temperament and putting a prize on his wicket, the southpaw produced much better results at Trent Bridge and Southampton.
Those changes, though, were a necessity with the series on the line. With nothing or very little at stake, the final Test presents India with a different opportunity.
Mission Australia and New Zealand
Having failed to show some bite when it mattered against an England side in transition, the target for India now should be to use the Oval Test as a dress rehearsal for the series Down Under later this year.
India will play four Tests against an Australian team that, like England, has problems of its own, with former captain Steve Smith and opener David Warner serving lengthy bans following the ball-tampering scandal. India have never won a Test series in Australia and would probably not get a better chance than the series in December-January, with their opponents’ top guns missing.
With off-spinner R Ashwin reportedly aggravating his hip injury, Ravindra Jadeja looks poised to end his frustrating wait on the bench and play at The Oval. The Indian middle-order’s repeated meek surrender may open the door for Hanuma Vihari, who was brought in as Kohli’s back-up midway through the series. With all-rounder Hardik Pandya proving to be a hit-and-miss with the bat and ball, Vihari, who averages just a touch under 60 in domestic cricket, can slot in.
But it will be Vihari’s part-time off-spin that may give him the edge over the experienced Karun Nair, who scored a triple-century against these opponents not long ago. The Oval wicket has traditionally aided the spinners.
Shastri and Kohli, since they were reunited as coach and skipper, have shown that they will not shy away from making bold decisions. Pandya and pacer Jasprit Bumrah, once written off as Twenty20 specialists, are now Test regulars. The latter in particular, has been a revelation, but when picked neither Pandya nor Bumrah were popular picks. Two weeks ago, wicketkeeper Pant continued that tradition.
Handing Prithvi Shaw his first Test cap may well be the next step for the Indian think-tank, who are under the cosh for some of their decision making. Shaw is a natural opener who has already made a name for himself in his fledgling career with Mumbai and the Indian Premier League.
A lengthy tour of lowly West Indies at home is far from an ideal warm-up for the batsmen before facing Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. A win at The Oval, though, can be a springboard for India’s much-desired and long-awaited series wins in South Africa, England, Australia, and New Zealand.
It is perhaps then that Shastri can finally back his ludicrous and factually inaccurate belief of the current lot being the best travelling Indian side in the last two decades.
The fifth Test between England and India at The Oval begins on Friday at 3.30 pm IST. The match can be watched on Sony Six, Sony Ten 3 and SonyLiv.com in India.