In the pre-match media session on Wednesday, Virat Kohli professed something blatantly contradictory to what he had been practising. “I don’t think we can make too many changes as far as one series goes, because we’re playing a big season,” he said. Here, if you’re listening to Kohli for the first time or has missed cricket since he became skipper, you’d bracket him alongside conventional skippers, reiterating like most of them the virtues of a stable, familiar cast.
Only that, he has been just the opposite. In his one-and-a-half year reign as Indian skipper, he has been anything but a conformist when it comes to picking his best eleven.
Then, further contradicting his own words, he made two alternations to the playing eleven in the fourth Test — Shikhar Dhawan and Ravindra Jadeja paving way for Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara. It has become a passé that Kohli’s team-tweaking patterns is the talking point in the first session of a Test. On Thursday, it didn’t ruffle as many feathers as it did on the first morning of the previous Test. There were not too many sweaty gasps or wide-eyed wonderment. After all, it seemed commonsensical to reinstate Vijay. But you still wonder why, in the first place, he was overlooked for the third Test, despite being optimally fit. And why he chose to drop Dhawan after sedulously defending him all this while. It gives confusing signs to both players.
The only conclusion that can be gleaned is that Kohli wanted to furnish another opportunity for Dhawan, whose numbers in this series read 84, 27, 1, 26. In a tightly-fraught three-way scamper for the opening slot, Dhawan couldn’t afford to squander his starts, and the clumsy sweep that got him out in North Sound when he looked destined for a hundred will haunt him. Both Vijay and Rahul, too, would know that they have to keep ticking in to securely retain their spot in the side. This can either burden them or motivate them.
The scenario is reminiscent of Australia in their ascent to invincibility at the stroke of this century. They began their 16-match winning spree with Greg Blewett and Michael Slater as openers. A middling series in New Zealand saw him displaced with Matthew Hayden. Blewett never placed another Test. Later an average Ashes returns saw Slater being jettisoned for Justin Langer. Slater too never played another Test, as Hayden and Langer forged one of the most prolific opening alliances in the game’s history. Even there, the changes were not as repeated as chronic as Kohli’s.
It certainly won’t be Dhawan’s last Test, neither there is a guarantee that Vijay and Rahul could blossom into as phenomenal a pair as Hayden and Langer. But in terms of the competition for slots, it definitely strikes a parallel. In a not-so-tacit manner, Kohli has sent out a clear perform-or-perish message, an un-Indian remorselessness. There also seems to be a restlessness that young leaders are often prone in their early days, a restless pursuit of perfection, a byproduct of which is too many changes, and an apparent lack of clarity. Or it might be that a dead-rubber match provided him the prospect of trying a different combination, and slightly loosening his stubborn insistence on the five-bowler theory by overlooking Jadeja for Pujara.
The reasoning behind this might have been two-fold. A: Kohli must have felt he was overburdening his lower-order batsmen, especially Ravichandran Ashwin, whose two hundreds staved India off blushes in the first innings in North Sound and Gros Islet respectively. As much as he might have been convinced by Ashwin’s batting, he wouldn’t want an eventuality wherein Ashwin, his titular bowler, is over-taxed.
The off-spinner has faced more balls than any other Indian batsmen on this tour—575. The second is Ajinkya Rahane (522). The third is Wriddhiman Saha (445). No one else has faced more than 400 balls in this series. Though Ashwin has so far seamlessly multi-tasked, and expressed his keenness to continue batting at No 6, Kohli doesn’t want him to prematurely burn out, especially at the beginning of a long home season wherein Ashwin will be his most potent weapon. So shoring up the middle order was a measure at unburdening him. Since Pujara is likely to bat at No 3, Kohli can revert to the more familiar role of a No 4.
B: Indian bowlers, collectively and individually, are in such fine form that four bowlers seem sufficient to dismiss the West Indies twice. Skippers tend to go with five bowlers when they feel that four aren’t quite good enough to take 20 wickets, or giving a provision that at least one of them is bound for a poor outing on any given day. The fifth bowler is kind of a buffer. When you look at this way, it seems more of a defensive than an attacking ploy. But now that Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ashwin have looked penetrative, the fifth bowler becomes redundant. Kohli was certainly encouraged by this
It’s the inverse of the logic Kohli had professed in dropping the extra batsman—if five can’t do it, nor can the sixth. If the same logic is applied here, if four bowlers can’t do it, nor can the fifth. A classic case was the second innings in Sabina Park. However, dispensing with a spinner on a track that promises to aid them as the match progresses seemed confusing. Maybe, Ashwin would not make him miss Jadeja or Amit Mishra.
But the bigger question is whether the four-bowler strategy would be his default template in future, against teams packed with better batsmen. Especially if a scenario arises when both Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma scores runs in this match. He will again be in a dilemma next match, if he wants to rope in an extra spinner. Then second-guessing Kohli’s moves is more treacherous a prospect than predicting tropical showers in the Caribbean. Maybe, the Kohli’s template is that he has no template.
Brief Score: West Indies 62/ 2 (Brathwaite 32*) v India.