“Is it the case of player power winning out?” went a question in the press conference. Weary Indian cricket fans need not fret as the question was asked to England captain Joe Root. It was about the decision to give Johnny Bairstow the wicketkeeping gloves for the series finale.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan had publicly said that Bairstow was sulking in the last game after being asked to bat at no. 4 (he doesn’t want to bat anywhere higher than 5) and removed as ‘keeper. Root said that he has had a word with Bairstow and told him that his performance would be monitored and it’s not a given that he would continue in the ‘keeping role.
As the Test caravan rolls to The Oval, it’s startling how despite a 3-1 lead England has hardly looked a settled side. If not for Sam Curran, they might well have lost both at Edgbaston and Southampton. There is chaos right through their batting line-up. Openers are in dismal form. Joe Root doesn’t want to bat at no. 3 and has slid down to 4. Bairstow doesn’t want to just play as a batsman or at no. 4. Moeen Ali, who wasn’t even in the reckoning, has become the main spinner and no. 3 batsman. It’s the lower-middle order that has been the spine of this team and carried it through the blues.
India would be kicking themselves that they didn’t press harder at vital moments as England have actually looked pretty vulnerable. Dead-rubber situations have an anaesthetic air about them. But it wasn’t the case on Thursday. The Indians trained with intensity with Ravi Shastri keeping a hawk eye on proceedings as usual. He walked here and there, sometimes at the side of the nets, close to the batsmen, and at times from the umpire’s position. Now and then, he had a word with selector Debang Gandhi.
Jadeja for Ashwin?
It seems India would go in with two changes: Ravindra Jadeja for R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari, a middle-order batsman who bowls off spin, likely to replace Hardik Pandya. Ashwin looked in physical discomfort for the last three days, spending most of the time with the physio.
He didn’t bat or bowl in the nets. Right at the end, when the rest of the players were walking towards the pavilion, he came and bowled two balls at an empty net. He had a chat with a couple of net bowlers, showing them some grips, and walked off.
It would be a big moment for the tall Vihari if he does make his debut. It’s a brown pitch with a hint of grass covering and traditionally, the pitch has been batting-friendly. It also gives a great opportunity for the two Indian openers – KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan.
Prithivi Shaw batted a bit, near the end on Wednesday, with Shastri encouraging him after nearly every ball. “Shot!” was used as an adjective, the same that he used for Vihari on Thursday. Shaw didn’t bat on Thursday and the game provides one last opportunity in this series for the openers to do something special.
There was much amusement as team masseur Arun Kanade took a hit on the face, letting the tennis ball slip through his palms during catching practice. It was captured on camera and there was much laughter as the players crowded to look at the replay. In the middle, Jasprit Bumrah, who had a decently long batting net, gifted his bat to a local net bowler, who walked around admiring his present for quite a while.
Shastri has talked about the need for the team to learn the art of crossing the line in pressure situations. “I think you have got to get tough mentally… They (team) would have hurt and rightly so after the last game. But this is a team that will not throw in the towel … Shot selection left a lot to be desired. That’s an area where you can tighten, be aware of what the team needs, being aware of the match situation.” That in nutshell sums up the series for India. There, but not quite there.
Lions, tigers at home
Not that England are quite there yet. But they are playing at home and Ajinkya Rahane made a rather interesting observation in the press conference. “Even if you do something wrong in one session (while playing in India), you get a chance to correct it in the next session and stage a comeback. When you are touring, you have to give 100 per cent in each and every session. How well you can play in tough situations and capitalise when you are in a commanding position. England did that so well. When they were in tough situations, their numbers 7-8-9’s contribution was so vital. When we were batting so well, they persisted with patience. I think that’s why they are up 3-1,” he elabortated.
Shot selections that stems from match awareness and nerves of steel under pressure is what the team needs now. The difference between 1-4 and 2-3 is more than just cosmetic. Far more is at stake here.