Sydney: One look at the scorecard and you could see India were sent on a royal leather hunt by Cricket Australia XI on days three and four of their only warm-up game that ended in a draw on Saturday. Only two CA batsmen didn’t get into double figures; the lowest score apart from that was 35; and the last pair put on 57 runs. It was so frustrating for India that Jasprit Bumrah – who was otherwise not named in the initial list of 14 – had to bowl to end the Australian innings with his seventh ball (a perfect yorker, of course.)
From inside the dressing room, though, things appear a bit different. Both R Ashwin and Murali Vijay stressed on the fact that this was just a game to fine-tune their preparations – a glorified net session if you will. And that is the Indian team’s wont – they just don’t rate non-First Class tour games as sufficient practice. Why that is so, is a debate for another day.
For now, there were key conclusions to be made from the three days of action at the SCG.
It is a big series for KL Rahul
“He is not a youngster, but someone who has played 30-odd Tests. He has a responsibility and a role to play in this team,” said coach Sanjay Bangar, after Rahul played a loose drive in the very first hour of this game and fell cheaply in the first innings.
Usually, the Indian contingent is such a tightly knit unit that there will be never a negative comment from within this camp. Perhaps in the last three or four years, Bangar’s words are perhaps the closest you will come to see criticism in a media interaction.
And make no mistake the message has been delivered to the batsman concerned.
It was his first time in South Africa and England this year. That excuse isn’t valid anymore. Rahul has been to Australia before; he knows these conditions, at least theoretically, because he traded for a long time on that debut hundred in Sydney four years ago. And he has been afforded a long rope very few get, to set his form and timing in order.
The 2018 IPL season and that T20I hundred in Manchester seem a long time ago now. Rahul has struggled for consistency and a constant shuffle/threat to his spot across formats hasn’t helped. Awful as Prithvi Shaw’s injury was, it does help provide some security to Rahul ahead of the first Test, especially in light of Murali Vijay’s second innings’ hundred.
He looked in better touch in the second innings, but come the first Test in Adelaide, it’s make-or-break time for Rahul.
India look set to play six batsmen...
The absence of Hardik Pandya, added to the presence of Rohit Sharma in the squad, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce this is what the think-tank is planning.
Bangar hinted that opening combination and middle-order were two issues they were looking at. We now know Rahul-Vijay will open in Adelaide. And the middle-order won’t be such an issue if India were intent on playing only five prime batsmen plus Rishabh Pant. In Pandya’s absence, strange as it may sound, that doesn’t seem a likely option.
So, barring any late surprises, the toss-up will be between Hanuma Vihari and Rohit Sharma.
Having impressed in his singular outing at the Oval, Vihari has been a constant in the Test squad. He looked comfortable in the first innings here, stroking an easy-paced half-century and outscoring Ajinkya Rahane (no, he is not under pressure, at least ahead of the first Test) and came out to bat at number three in the second innings as if the team management were re-affirming their faith in him.
Rohit looked comfortable in his first innings’ knock of 40 (55 balls) too. Then, he threw it away, as he often does in red-ball cricket. Ideally, it should be Vihari at number six in Adelaide. But the captain and the coach preferred Rohit in South Africa in a near-similar situation. Whether Vihari’s bowling tilts the scale in his favour, remains to be seen.
...but Kohli has bowling headaches
Until his five-wicket haul in Nottingham, Pandya had limited impact as an all-rounder in overseas Test cricket. Even so, he did provide a unique balance to this Indian side – there was simple comfort in knowing that an alternative bowling option is available.
Additionally, Virat Kohli has played five bowlers in overseas Test cricket almost without fail. Surely at the start of any series, be it in West Indies, Sri Lanka, South Africa or England, he has had five bowling options. Is it possible that he will ignore this set formula, in Pandya’s absence?
In Cricket Australia XI’s innings, Vihari sent down 12 overs. Vijay bowled five overs. But it is in the skipper’s seven overs that a pointer comes forth – you know when Kohli has to bowl, India have a fifth bowler problem.
Ashwin spoke about bowling in partnerships to stay ahead of the game on harder Australian wickets that do not spin or seam easily.
Ideally, the aforementioned number six debate shouldn’t arise, at all. Like Kohli has done in majority of his stint as the captain, five proper bowling options is mandatory, especially in Australia. The bowling attack in that case would be three pacers, Kuldeep Yadav the spinner and Ashwin as all-rounder at seven.
But it seems unlikely given India’s experimenting with that part-time bowling option at SCG.
Watch out for Jasprit Bumrah
Watching Umesh Yadav bowl 28 overs almost seemed futile. Unless there is some injury concern, he will not get to play a Test on this tour, for he seemed to be in competition with Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma for two spots. The third pacer slot is already nailed on. Seeing India toil for 150-odd overs, one thing became crystal clear — Bumrah is going to be Kohli’s X-Factor in this series.
Single-handedly, Bumrah has changed the way India bowl in overseas Test cricket. Sure, there are Shami and Yadav who can move the ball both ways, Ishant who is a stock bowler and Bhuvneshwar Kuamr who can keep the ball on a string in helpful conditions. None of them have that constantly incoming attacking line that keeps batsmen guessing, and it is the singular reason why Kohli picks him for every overseas Test that he is fit for.
On harder Australian wickets, Bumrah will bang that Kookaburra ball in and look to put the new ball’s seam to good use. And he is pumped up for it – just watch him celebrate that yorker — his solitary wicket in the seven balls he sent down.
This could be Bumrah’s most influential Test series yet.