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Saturday, September 25, 2021

India’s new equation: Ashwin, Shardul could be greater than Ishant, Jadeja

A combination of six specialist batsmen, a bowling all-rounder and four bowlers has been India’s recipe for success over the past couple of seasons.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty |
Updated: August 30, 2021 7:45:39 am
IND vs NZ, AshwinRavichandran Ashwin in action for India in the World Test Championship final. (File)

India captain Virat Kohli dismissed the idea of playing an extra batsman. “I don’t believe in that balance. I have never believed in that balance.”

A combination of six specialist batsmen, a bowling all-rounder and four bowlers has been India’s recipe for success over the past couple of seasons. The India captain saw no reason to change it even after an innings defeat at Headingley. The template for the first three Tests in the ongoing series had been four fast bowlers and Ravindra Jadeja as a spin-allrounder. Given the skipper’s reluctance to change it, maybe a change of personnel would be beneficial. On the face of it, Ravichandran Ashwin and Shardul Thakur for Jadeja and Ishant Sharma could make the team better-balanced without rejigging the template.

In fact, there’s a paradox. Although Jadeja was the specialist all-rounder in the XI, India effectively played the first three Tests with seven specialist batsmen. Conditions restricted the left-arm spinner’s bowling minutes at Trent Bridge and Lord’s. And despite him sending down 32 overs and taking two wickets at Headingley, Jadeja hardly made much impact in a game even though he was expected to be a lot more effective. On the other hand, the left-hander is the fourth-highest scorer (133 runs) in the team at the moment ahead of Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant.

Jadeja’s contributions, however, have been restricted to important cameos and a couple of crucial partnerships. Over the last two years, his batting improvement has been immense but at No. 7, he is no Ravi Shastri and maybe only marginally better than Ashwin. And as Kohli said at the post-match press conference on Saturday, sometimes you need to look beyond the numbers.

Only a few days ago, Ashwin tweeted a picture of him batting left-handed at the nets with a caption: “The desire to ignite something different every day never burns out.” It’s a matter of interpretation whether a sly dig was aimed at anyone, but someone with close to 2,700 Test runs and five centuries is no mug with the bat. In his last 10 Test innings, Ashwin has scored a hundred under pressure plus a match-saving 39 not out against Australia in Sydney last winter. His sound footwork holds him in good stead.

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As an off-spinner, he is arguably the world’s best. “They have to pick Ashwin. It’s very hard for me to digest that the (team’s) best spinner was out of the playing eleven in the first three Tests. Who you will drop? It’s up to the Indian think-tank. The best spinner should be playing,” former India captain and ex-selection committee chairman Dilip Vengsarkar told The Indian Express.

The Southampton Test in 2018 was one of the lows in Ashwin’s career. On a turning pitch, England’s Moeen Ali outperformed him with a nine-wicket match haul compared to the Indian offie’s three. But over the subsequent three years, Ashwin’ bowling has become even more well-rounded, with added variety. The pink-ball Test in Adelaide in December last year was a case in point, where in seamer-friendly conditions, he spun a web around Steve Smith and company, eventually retuning with four wickets in the first innings. In the World Test Championship (WTC) final also, he partially opened the game for India on the final day, just that he didn’t have enough runs to bowl with in the fourth innings.

The fourth Test will be played at The Oval from September 2. It’s a venue that traditionally has the flattest pitches in England. It briefly became Ashwin’s home ground after the WTC final, when he joined Surrey for a short County stint ahead of the Test series. He ran through Somerset’s batting with 6/27 in 15 overs, dismantling them for 69 in their second innings. As the Adelaide Test last year and the WTC final two months ago showed, Ashwin of the 2021 vintage can rise above the pitch factor, for he has become more skilful in the air, through his flight, loop and dip.

Shardul for Ishant?

Shardul Thakur has 11 wickets in three Tests for India. (File)

India started the series with Shardul as their fourth seamer and he would have retained his place but for a hamstring injury. Ishant played at Lord’s and gave an impact performance in both innings. After a marauding win in the second Test, the team at Headingley sort of picked itself. But as it turned out, two consecutive Tests at 33 years of age were a little too strenuous for the Delhi fast bowler. He was completely bereft of rhythm. Collectively, the tourists didn’t bowl well at Leeds. “Basically, they (England) bowled a lot better than us in this game,” Kohli said at the presser on Saturday.

A fit-again Shardul should automatically return to the XI at The Oval. In the first Test, his two wickets in an over in the first innings included Joe Root. In the second innings also, his two wickets neutered England’s middle-order charge. Shardul is a swing bowler, a valuable commodity in English conditions.

As a lower-order batsman, he is a serious upgrade on Ishant. On many an occasion in domestic cricket, Shardul has bailed out Mumbai with his batting. His 67, and a 123-run partnership with Washington Sundar in Brisbane earlier this year, turned the game on its head. Kohli spoke about partnership batting, how stands of 50-60 runs are more important than personal milestones. From that perspective, an Ashwin-Shardul lower-order partnership inspires more confidence than the Jadeja-Ishant combine. This also allows the team management to retain a 4-1 combination.

The Pant puzzle

Rishabh Pant has played 24 Tests, 18 ODIs and 32 T20Is for India. (File)

Inconsistency has been Pant’s biggest problem. On his day, he is a match-winner and his Brisbane heroics confirm that. But away from home, such impact knocks are few and far between. India’s middle order and lower-middle order have been suffering from Pant’s current travails. Kohli refused to read too much into his 17-plus average after the first three Tests, protecting the young ‘keeper-batsman and speaking about assessing his performance only after the series. At the same time, the skipper’s antidote to tackle England’s bowling was “concentration and precise decision-making”.

The England bowlers aren’t giving Pant any hitting space. He is trying to counter that by dancing down the track to pacers, who are much taller than him. Bounce and away movement have made him a sitting duck.

Vengsarkar opined that an iffy middle order needs the cushion of an extra batsman. “India will have to play with six (specialist) batsmen and the sixth should be Suryakumar Yadav. He is at the peak of his career and can match anybody in this team as far as batting is concerned.”

Kohli sees an extra batsman as a defensive option and one loss will not shatter his belief. This, though, puts greater pressure on Pant. The youngster will be given a long rope, but the team template reduces his margin for error.

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