“It is not exactly about the man himself. “Hardik” is more of a role at this stage. And a cricketer who can fit into that role is exactly what India are missing”
India decided to play four fast bowlers in the Perth Test. While Ravichandran Ashwin is injured, they still had Ravindra Jadeja (more than competent with bat) and Kuldeep Yadav (wrist-spinners typically thrive in Australia) to choose from. They also left out Bhuvneshwar Kumar, presumably because he was unlikely to deliver on a hard pitch.
However, this also meant that India went into the Test with four rank tail-enders – Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, and Jasprit Bumrah. It won’t be an exaggeration to call them a quartet of No. 11s.
Barring Shami’s 51 not out at Trent Bridge – on a wicket so flat that James Anderson scored 81 – the four of them do not have a single innings of even 35 across 233 innings between them. With 10 runs from 13 innings, Bumrah towers above them all (though “burrows beneath all” is probably more appropriate here). Yes, the Indian bottom four is that bad.
It is not easy being an Indian selector under such circumstances. Virat Kohli has always insisted on five bowlers. He could have stuck to that here, had there been two, or even one, batsmen of some competence among his genuine quicks. Alas, there is none. Bhuvneshwar, the only seamer who can bat, is unlikely to feature in the Australia series.
On the other hand, playing exactly four bowlers is a risk. Consider India’s outing at Adelaide, where they played three fast bowlers and Ashwin. As the pitch got easier, the Australians resisted more and more, and the pacers bowled from one end. Ashwin had to send down over fifty overs in the fourth innings – almost on the trot.
A fifth bowler could have provided India with some respite. Unfortunately, four of India’s five certainties in the top five on this tour – KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, and Kohli himself – do not bowl. The injured Prithvi Shaw does not bowl, and his temporary replacement Murali Vijay is all set to set the worst Test bowling average in Indian history.
Also read: Hardik Pandya and the tale of typecasting
Hanuma Vihari bowls, but he is not a regular. He bowls under 23.6 balls a match across 66 matches (he has 22 wickets). We are talking First-Class matches here. To put things into perspective, Joe Root bowls 24.4 a match in Test cricket – and England play at least five bowlers every time, if not six.
At Perth, India had no option but to go with six specialist batsmen and four specialist bowlers. At least three of these bowlers cannot bat, while at most one of the batsmen bowls – and that too not a lot. Ashwin was excellent at Adelaide, but India did take a risk by picking him, a finger-spinner. It was not a safe decision: it was a risk that came off in a country where wrist-spinners thrive.
But had they picked Kuldeep for Ashwin at Adelaide, it would merely have extended the tail.
At this point, thus, India face an unenviable selection conundrum. Let us evaluate their options:
1. Play six batsmen and one of Ashwin and Jadeja.
This is what they did at Adelaide. Ashwin had to bowl over 85 overs in the Test. Vijay, the only back-up bowler, was of no help.
2. Play four fast bowlers.
This is what they are doing at Perth. They have a tail matched by almost none in this millennium.
3. Play Ashwin and Jadeja and two fast bowlers.
This is not practical in Australia. True, India won a Test at Headingley in 2002 with two seamers, but they had Sanjay Bangar, who got two top-order wickets after getting a gutsy fifty.
4. Play Ashwin or Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar, and three fast bowlers.
This is probably the best positive combination. India will be fielding two bowling all-rounders (or so it seems) to make up for that sixth batsman and a long tail. Mind you, calling Bhuvneshwar an all-rounder will be stretching things somewhat (he averages 22).
Even then they will get that extra bowler. This could have solved things somewhat, but India seem to have made up their mind about leaving Bhuvneshwar out in Australia.
5. Play Ashwin, Jadeja, and three fast bowlers.
Checkpoint 4. Unfortunately, both Ashwin and Jadeja are finger-spinners, not a good option on hard Australian pitches.
The two-all-rounder theory would have worked well overseas, had one of them been a fast bowler, or at least someone who bowled seam. This is what Kohli has always insisted on. In fact, so keen was he on a seam bowler with some batting credentials that he insisted on Stuart Binny on the Sri Lankan tour of 2015.
Given Kohli’s insistence on five bowlers, Hardik Pandya is the best possible fit. This is not because Hardik is not an outstanding all-rounder. He is not.
But he is probably the best in the country when it comes to the role of the sixth batsman (seventh, if you include the wicketkeeper) and the fourth fast bowler. The fielding is a bonus.
It is not exactly about the man himself. “Hardik” is more of a role at this stage. And a cricketer who can fit into that role is exactly what India are missing.