It is the eve of the Test match at Perth, Australia have come out and named their playing XI. India had their press conference before the Aussies and had named 13 players who were in contention.
The hosts with better knowledge of the conditions, even though this was the first Test at the venue and it was a drop-in pitch, chose to go with an unchanged XI. Six batsmen. One keeper-batsman. Three pacers. One spinner. They kept things steady; they kept their faith in the squad.
But India had one look at the pitch and decided that they needed four fast bowlers to do the job.
“When we looked at the pitch, we didn’t think about that [Ravindra Jadeja] option. We never thought we wanted to consider a spinner. We thought four quicks would be enough,” said Virat Kohli after the match.
That statement, viewed alone, would have made sense if India didn’t know what Australia’s team was. But India did know. And they still didn’t even consider a spinner. Not picking him would have been fine if they had given it due consideration but perhaps a gentle nod to the opposition would have helped.
Could they have at least wondered why Australia was playing a spinner? Is that too much to ask?
This isn’t the first time India have done this either. During the Lord’s Test earlier this year, England named their playing XI and included four pacers. The first day was rained off [bring in moisture and all that jazz into the argument] and India only had to name their playing XI on day two.
So what did Kohli do? He named two spinners in the XI. He later admitted that India “got the combination wrong.” But the result was that England won the Test inside four days despite losing a day and half to rain. India were bowled out for 107 and 130.
Did India need 4 pacers?
Sometimes the rub of the green won’t go your way but given that India had won in Adelaide, should Kohli have considered a more conservative way of thinking?
Perth was clearly not Adelaide. There was going to be more for the quicks and as the game showed, there was. So did India really need four to simply blast out the Aussies or could they gone for variety and picked a spinner – which would have given the pacemen time to rest as well?
The other thing about the selection was that it gave India a really long tail. In the first innings at Perth, India’s last four batsmen lasted 47 balls (Umesh playing 31 of them). In the second innings, they lasted 31 balls (Umesh playing 23 of them).
In fact, the last time that India’s tailenders (Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, and Umesh Yadav) faced more than 60 balls combined in an innings was July 2014.
Kohli keeps speaking about the balance that Hardik Pandya lends to the side. So it is not as of he isn’t aware of the fragility of the tail and the batting at large. But if Pandya is then missing, as he was in the first two Tests, why would India not look to shore up the batting?
It’s one thing to have confidence in your players and quite another to rush into danger without even considering a safer option. It’s like saying we have bullet-proof armour but don’t wear it because it will slow you down. Under Kohli, India always seem to live on the edge. But why does it have to be so?
Time for introspection
The loss at Perth robs India of the momentum they gained at Adelaide. The selection muddle, which Kohli doesn’t even think it is, borders on a dangerous kind of arrogance.
“We were totally convinced as a team that that was out best combination to go with and then the batsmen had to take responsibility. There are lot of variables that can happen during the course of a cricket match but before that you have to have clarity as to what you want to do and I think as a side we were totally clear that this is the combination we want,” said Kohli in the press conference after his loss.
But if the batsmen have been struggling for a while, just calling on them to take responsibility isn’t going to help, is it? It is okay to say that publicly but let’s hope privately there is a fair bit of introspection in the camp.
The Indian skipper “doesn’t have a negative bone” in his body but his all or nothing approach seems to hinder him from a tactical viewpoint as well. This is India’s seventh overseas Test defeat this year. The previous record was six in 2014. Just because India is going for a win, doesn’t mean they always have to leave gaps in their defence.
At some point, soon enough, Kohli will have to wonder whether just having the right kind of intent is enough, because sometimes that intent needs to be tempered with a not-very-kind reality too.