“However, the most crucial doubt is whether the side should go in with a 6-5 combination or play 7 batsmen and 4 bowlers”
As they trooped into England a mighty opportunity awaited; a chance for redemption was up for grabs. The group that could hardly win abroad in tough and challenging conditions had the team to reverse the tide and led on by a passionate skipper, the trumpet bells had long sounded. Exuding confidence, arrogance and nonchalance, Virat Kohli stepped in the United Kingdom with the aim of silencing the hordes of naysayers who doubted India’s abilities and with a squad that could withstand the deepest onslaughts, the ultimate glory at the end of the competitive series looked well within reach.
However, as the series panned out and as each innings ended with a greater bitterness, the Pandora’s Box tumbled over to reveal some stark truths. With the biggest hopes disappointing and with some dubious selection calls, the tour to England will end posing greater questions than what had been anticipated, which spells doom ahead of the tour to Australia and the World Test Championships.
It can be argued that the tour did not throw up completely one-sided encounters – India could and should have won the first Test at Birmingham and they had their chances at Southampton as well but the inability to sound the death knell and go for the kill at opportune moments eventually segregated Joe Root’s Men from Kohli’s. By faltering at crucial junctions after building up the game towards a final climax, India refused to spit out temperamentally strong individuals, which was the reason for yet another overseas series defeat.
Entering as powerhouses in the Test circuit
However, the confidence was at the highest before the series begun. After a distinct home season, where the Indians brushed aside every opponent and with an impressive outing in South Africa as well, the number 1 Test team in the world had all the reasons to believe that England could finally be breached after 11 years. With a technically strong set of players like Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane and with a fearless Kohli at the helm, the batting order looked more than sorted and with the lower middle order throwing up some exciting and talented prospects, the reasons to worry were few.
A shadow of doubt was cast over Hardik Pandya but his self-confidence and his exuberant performances that had won over the team management meant that he would occupy a spot in the eleven. Despite the absence of Wriddhiman Saha, Dinesh Karthik, who was still revelling in his Nidahas Trophy heroics, had inspired hope and it was almost certain that he would make his comeback a tour to remember. With a balanced bowling department, led by India’s home-hero Ravichandran Ashwin, who could score a few crucial runs with the willow as well, India’s batting depth ran deep and the likes of Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah had reinvented themselves to emerge equally ferocious, if not more, as their English counterparts.
Equipped with truckloads of talent and with an abundance of energy, the long tour to England began with fervent hopes but just over four Tests later, the shambolic state of Test cricket in India remains hard to ignore.
Leaving behind a trail of unanswered questions
The problems began right at the top for the Indians as the openers Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul left much to be desired. The “technically strong” Tamil Nadu player scored a pair in the second Test before he was discarded away for Rahul and Dhawan and though they have managed to hold on to their spots for this series, their form remains iffy and hardly inspiring. Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw are most likely to be picked for Australia, but would the management risk going in with two youngsters against the pace and bounce of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins at the top? Rahul has scored a hundred in Australia in what was his second Test match, but since then he has fallen off the radar, attuning his body to the skills of T20 cricket instead. Dhawan is patchy and though he is in all probability going to be among the runs against West Indies, his footwork against genuine swing and pace will leave the management reeling.
Pujara’s slow strike-rate somehow makes him a misfit in the team that is keen to take the game away from the opposition and even when he is amid runs, he can hardly be termed a match-winner. He will hold one end up and tire out the rival team but unless a fluent Kohli is by his side, he proves to be a liability in the squad. With Rahane taking his own time to emerge as the match-winner he once was, the top order, despite having heavyweights, rely solely on the Indian captain and if he fails the troubles only seem to multiply.
If Hanuma Vihari is persisted with, then three of the top six (assuming India play Agarwal and Shaww both) will be newcomers in Australia – which remains a risk that Ravi Shastri will not be keen to take. With Rishabh Pant and Karthik both failing with the bat in this series, the gloves will be in the hands of Wriddhiman Saha, who is undoubtedly the best keeper at present. However, he does not remain as convincing with the bat, and here pops up yet another crucial question – will the Indians be comfortable playing a talented Pant who might improve with the bat but who can also concede more byes or should they stick to Saha who has impressed with his stretched-out catches and dives that are jaw-dropping?
However, the most crucial doubt is whether the side should go in with a 6-5 combination or play 7 batsmen and 4 bowlers. Kohli has made his intention of going with the former clear, but with Pandya not living up to his reputation in the first four Tests, India was forced to bring in Hanuma Vihari and play with 7 batsmen in the fifth Test. Though the Andhra player did score a gritty 50 on debut, which helped the team evade yet another shabby performance from the top, the absence of a fourth seamer in Pandya did take a heavy toll on the pacers, which was made clear by Bumrah.
“When you have an extra bowler, that gives you some cushion while bowling. With four bowlers you tend to bowl more overs because then you have to come back quickly (to bowl). That was the only difference I felt, otherwise we tried our best, we bowled our hearts out, we bowled a lot of overs. An extra bowler sometimes gives you enough rest.”
With a heavy work-load, India can ill-afford to tire out either seamer, which can spell doom for India in the World Cup. So, should India play four front-line pacers in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Bumrah, Ishant and Shami with Ravindra Jadeja acting as the all-rounder and weaken their batting or should they stick to three seamers and one spinner (either Jadeja or Ashwin) in a bid to strengthen their Achilles Heel? The matter is up for debate…