Humiliating losses have damaging after-effects. Team spirit evaporates quickly in a dressing room full of outwitted, out-of-form and thus edgy players. Soon the collective goal of fighting as one to put it across the rivals fades and, at a sub-conscious level, survival instincts take over. Now, the usual fight for spots within the team doesn’t remain healthy and competitive. It turns ugly.
It’s also tough for decision-makers to be fair and make the right choice on the eve of the match. That’s because there are no right choices. From a pool of under-achievers, they have to fish out the ‘right’ playing XI. Choosing the ‘better’ from a group of ‘goods’ is easier than deciding who’s bad and who’s worse. It’s a no-win situation. Wrong choice by the captain would result in him facing allegations of favouritism plus sulking teammates. It’s a scenario that fractures teams. These were the fears that the Indian team faced, as they left Manchester.
On the way to London, a couple of days after the innings defeats at Old Trafford, there would be several pensive faces staring out of the team bus. The last Tests of disappointing series are generally career-deciding games. Reputations will be at stake at the Oval. If it ends with a 3-1 scoreline for England, some of the tourists might not wear the India whites again or, maybe, never be trusted for an assignment abroad.
It’s a panic situation. At the training nets in the coming days, while thinking about their rivals in the England dressing room, there will be those in the Indian camp who would be looking over their shoulders for the team-mates who might be fighting for the same spot as them.
Here’s looking at those who might not quite walk into the playing XI at the Oval and also those who are in the running for the same spot.
Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin: The word from the Oval is that it’s a pacy track. England seemed to have cracked the pitch-code after the Lord’s misadventure. In case Dhoni does get swayed by the look of the pitch or goes by the word floating around, he might have to pick one among these two spinners. Jadeja hasn’t been among the wickets. But, as was the case at Southampton, he did what the captain asked him to do. Bowling to a 7-2 field, he was restrictive. At Manchester, he was the second best spinner in the side after Ashwin. But in conditions favouring swing both were under-bowled.
When it comes to batting, Jadeja was seen as India’s batting hero at Lord’s, the only Test India won. His aggressive charge at the England bowlers was the turning point of the game. But subsequently, he went off the boil both with bat and ball. Ashwin looked the better batsman in the last Test. There are those who say that Dhoni prefers Jadeja over Ashwin as he perfectly fits in his plan of plugging one end. Jadeja also has a better away average than Ashwin.
Gautam Gambhir and Shikhar Dhawan: Gambhir looked totally out of sorts at Old Trafford. He couldn’t grasp the pace or the bounce of the pitch. Chances are that a failure at the Oval might signal the end of his Test career. Considering the pressure, will Dhoni revert to Dhawan, who too failed to make an impact in six previous innings? But will it be fair to drop Gambhir after just one game? Counter-thought: But so was Rohit Sharma after the third Test.
This might be the toughest decision for the captain. This is the classic case of picking one of the two bad apples. Or can he replace an apple with an orange? Will he push either the ODI opener Rohit Sharma, one-time opener Ajinkya Rahane or the virtual opener Cheteshwar Pujara up the order? This will be the most complicated and much-talked about choice that the captain has to make.
Pankaj Singh or Mohammed Shami: With Ishant expected to play the final Test, the pace department will see a change. They say Pankaj would be a different bowler had Jadeja held onto Alastair Cook’s catch early in the third Test. However, moaning over spilled milk wouldn’t help India. The lack of wickets for most part of the two Tests he has played, plus his miserable luck, affected his bowling. He did bowl a few loose balls plus team tactics of bowling short didn’t help his cause.
After his first Test wicket he did show more zip in his bowling, but it was too late. He competes with Shami, who has been the big let-down of this tour. With his pace and swing he was to be India’s spearhead but hasn’t been particularly disciplined. Already, there is talk that Umesh Yadav should have been preferred over Pankaj, Shami and Ishwar Pandey. In case Yadav makes an impact during the ODIs, he can be considered for future Tests abroad. That would mean the end of the road for a couple of men in this tour party.