On the first day of the Nagpur Test, after the Indian spinners had wound up Sri Lanka for a petty total, Ravindra Jadeja was asked to visualise himself as the Indian skipper and who he would pick for the first Test in South Africa, himself or his ally Ravichandran Ashwin. He smiled an impish smile and retorted playfully: “Yeh bhi koi poochne ki baat hai. It’s a no-brainer. If I am the captain, I will not even give the ball to anyone. I will keep bowling from one end.”
His Saurashtra teammates would swear by his fondness to keep bowling from one end, unchanged. In a match against Mumbai, in 2011, he bowled 36 at a stretch, before eventually bowling 56 overs (one third of the total number of overs they bowled). In the next season, he probed away for 32 successive overs in a total of 52 against Odisha.
It’s one of his less appreciated gifts, to keep bowling at a stretch from one end — but here he was jesting. On a graver note, he elaborated: “It all depends on team’s balance and what it wants. At times on overseas tours, we assess if there are more left-handers or right-handers in the opposition and accordingly, the teams composition is set.”
He was just echoing what Kohli had observed on the day before the Test, that he would pick his spinner based on the opposition, more specifically the left-right handedness of the team.
There are some that believe this theory is flawed — that a good spinner is a good spinner against both right and left handers. Ashwin himself is a classic case. While he has been a scourge against left-handed batsmen, the best of his times, David Warner and Kumar Sangakkara would testify, his average is marginally better against the righties than the lefties —22.43 and 22.76 respectively, though of his 304 wickets, 158 have been left-handed batsmen.
Conversely, in Jadeja’s case, it’s slightly disproportionate-108 of his 165 wickets are right-handers. But it could be that he has been bowling more often against them. His average, though, is still impressive (25.10 as opposed to 22.68 against righties).
Kohli steadfastly believes in the theory. “On pitches without much turn or bounce, it’s very important to understand if the left-arm spinner is bowling to five right-handers or the off-spinner is bowling to four left-handers. Just because of the angle the ball coming in makes so much difference against a spinner,” he had said.
It’s difficult to take a sample size of Kohli’s preferences as he has skippered in only a handful of Tests abroad. In his first tour as a full-time skipper, to the West Indies, where the strips are generally drier these days, he played two spinners in three of the four Tests. Ashwin played in all four, Amit Mishra in two and Jadeja in one.
But in his first captaincy assignment, in Adelaide as incumbent MS Dhoni was injured, he gave a gist of his preferences. He handed out a debut to leg-spinner Karn Sharma, considering the predominant right-handedness of Australia (just Warner, Chris Rogers and Mitchell Johnson were southpaws), but it was widely criticised as the leggie not only struggled but his Australian counterpart Nathan Lyon disproved the theory, by picking 12 wickets in the most spin-friendly surface in the series. Needless to say, all 12 victims were right handers.
Sharma was duly dropped and Ashwin played all three remaining Tests, even in Sydney where Kohli captained, the first of the post-Dhoni era.
But his convictions, though, remained firm, at least going by what he repeatedly reiterates in press conferences. Kohli’s decision, then, would be straightforward in the first Test in Cape Town, unless the pitch is dry enough to cram both. Right-handed heavy as South Africa’s current batting line-up is, Jadeja looks the front-runner. Of the probable top-seven of South Africa-Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock-only two are left handers. And Kohli will also take into account the success of the left-arm/leg-spinners against AB de Villiers, their most destructive batsman, in their trip to India in 2015.
Thrice Jadeja nailed him, twice each did Amit Mishra and Ashwin.
It’s not an exact weakness, but it’s no coincidence that there are three of these genres in the top seven of the most successful bowlers against de Villiers — Shane Warne, Jadeja and Monty Panesar, all of who have dismissed him four times each, but at a collective average of 45. Then Ashwin had consumed him twice at an average of 26. Harbhajan was even better, twice at 20. Even Virender Sehwag had nailed him twice. The comparisons wouldn’t one bit allay Kohli’s dilemma.
But Jadeja believes he has a slight edge over Ashwin. He didn’t say in as many words. But slipped in a loose thread. “When I got a chance last time, I played the second Test after Ash played the first,” he said just this. The implication was clear. Ashwin started in the first match and picked no wickets in 42 overs, 36 off which he delivered in South Africa’s second innings.
He was widely criticised for his ineptness on the final day, where South Africa nearly won chasing 458. In the next match, Jadeja replaced him and picked 6/138 in the first innings, bowling 58 overs. Subsequently, on the tours to England and New Zealand, too, Jadeja was the first-choice spinner.
However, the trajectories of both bowlers have dramatically changed since. Ashwin reinvented his craft; Jadeja re-calibrated his own. The latter is not the modern-day pragmatist South Africa saw in 2013, but morphed himself in a more classical mould. The former has nailed the art of prising out batsmen, rather than looking for magic balls, and conquered self doubts. Though both are diverse in terms of methods, means, perspectives and temperament, they have emerged as in-expendables. Jadeja might not purchase as much side-spin as Ashwin on non-turning tracks, but Ashwin can’t under-cut or over-spin like Jadeja.
To compound Kohli’s confusion, both have tremendous all-round utility. For if Ashwin is a better batsman, Jadeja is a better fielder. So he says: “I can’t commit to that (their inclusion)100 per cent when we play abroad that we will be playing with two spinners, to be honest,” he says.
It’s the first big decision Kohli will have to make on his biggest test as captain yet. And a decision that has scope for immense criticism. There is only one easy solution to it: Play them both.