Melbourne: When was the last time that a player, unavailable for selection due to injury, was named in the short list of 13, less than 24 hours before the start of a Test match?

On December 13, 2018. The player in question, Ravindra Jadeja.

Over the last ten days, plenty of air time and media space has been devoted to India’s faith in a four-pronged pace attack at the Perth Stadium for the second Test. This, in a game where Nathan Lyon, the lone specialist spinner in the game, walked away with the man-of-the-match honours following an eight-wicket match haul that bowled Australia to a series-squaring 1-1 victory.

Virat Kohli made a spirited defence of India’s bowling composition after the 146-run defeat, confirming that once R Ashwin had been ruled out with a side strain, the visitors hadn’t even contemplated playing a spinner. “We as a team didn’t think we definitely wanted to consider a spinning option on this pitch,” the skipper had said. “We thought a fast bowler is going to be more productive and more helpful for us as a team.”

Ravi Shastri, the head coach, sang a different tune as the team reassembled for practice at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday (December 23), proclaiming that Jadeja hadn’t been considered because he was not 100% fit. That was as much of a left-field punch as imaginable, because there had been no suggestion until then that the left-arm spinning all-rounder from Saurashtra had been carrying an injury.

Clearly, something is off somewhere. Even assuming that Kohli didn’t feel the need to discuss Jadeja’s injury in the aftermath of the Perth drubbing, how does it explain his inclusion in the 13 named for the game? And where is the justification for Jadeja coming as a fielding substitute in both the Adelaide and Perth Tests if it was his bowling, and throwing, arm that was the suspect part of his body?

Shastri, full of beans as usual and deflecting brewing criticism back home with characteristic bravado, also announced that Jadeja had come into the tour carrying soreness in his left shoulder. Did the team management/physio Patrick Farhart inform MSK Prasad’s selection committee of the same? And, if so, did the selectors still go ahead and pick Jadeja in the original, jumbo-sized 18-man party? As per recent norm, Indian cricket seems replete with more questions than answers.

Without insinuating that Shastri is being less than truthful, it boggles the mind that India would not just name Jadeja in the 13 – that can still be put down to mind-games and keeping the opposition on its toes – but actually send him on as a replacement fielder. At no stage during his various stints as substitute did Jadeja hold back while throwing the ball from in close or the deep. Not once was he seen feeling the offending shoulder, or receiving attention from the physio. If he was no more than 70-80% fit, what was he doing out there in the middle, especially with so many more sitting in the changing-room? Wasn’t he putting himself in greater danger of aggravating the injury and ruling himself out of contention for the rest of the series?

A simple question

It all started with a simple enough question about the criticism the team management has copped from experts back home for putting all their eggs in the pace basket in Perth. “When you are millions of miles away, it is very easy to fire blanks,” Shastri shot back. “The problem with Jaddu was that he had taken an injection four days into (before) coming to Australia because of some stiffness in his shoulder, and it took a while for that injection to settle down. So when you look at Perth, we felt he was about 70-80 percent fit and we didn’t want to risk that in Perth. If he is 80 percent here, he will play, that’s the answer.”

Jadeja seemed 100% fit as he wheeled away at the outdoor nets at the MCG on Sunday, but then again, he had seemed fit in Adelaide and Perth as well. Ashwin didn’t bowl more than a couple of deliveries from a standing position and is still a doubt for the Boxing Day Test. Shastri has already indicated that even if less than fully fit, Jadeja is most likely to play in Melbourne if Ashwin isn’t around, another bold statement especially with the head coach himself harping on the dangers of fielding a semi-fit player.

“When he (Jadeja) came here, he felt some stiffness and he felt that in India as well,” Shastri revealed, “but he played domestic cricket after that. He still felt stiff in the shoulder and he was injected again, it takes time to settle. It has taken longer than we expected and we wanted to be careful. The last thing you want is someone breaking down after 5-10 overs and then we are stuck for players to pick for Melbourne and Sydney.”

Jadeja’s last first-class game was a month and a half back, for Saurashtra against Railways in Rajkot when he returned match figures of seven for 181 and conjured knocks of 178 and 48, both unbeaten. He has 39 Tests under his belt, and so should be able to shake off rust, as Shastri rightly pointed out, “You rely on experience. It’s not their first Test, they have been around, they have played enough Test cricket and it is for them to come up and deliver.”

Only, a couple of minutes earlier, Shastri had used completely different logic when talking about Hardik Pandya’s chances of breaking back into the XI. Pandya had been out of commission with a lower back injury for nearly three months before playing last week for Baroda in the Ranji Trophy against Mumbai. He sent down 18.5 overs in the first innings for five wickets, and 10 further overs in the second, the twin bowling stints sandwiched by a three-and-a-half-hour 73.

“Pandya gives you that (all-round) option but he has not played much first-class cricket,” Shastri had said at the start of the interaction. “He has just played one game after injury, so we have to be very careful before we actually decide whether he plays or not.”

Contradictions aren’t new within this Indian team, though unlike this time when Shastri seems to be differing with himself, the coach and the captain have had divergent views in the past. After the series had been surrendered in South Africa, Shastri conceded that India would have been better off having played at least one warm-up game, while Kohli insisted that a match for the sake of it against a weak opposition would have served no purpose. That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong in having differences of opinion. But when player injuries are couched in the secrecy associated with national security, then hackles are naturally raised. After all, transparency can’t be used as a tool of convenience.