Hardik Pandya has been rested for the upcoming Test series against Sri Lanka. According to the BCCI release, the selection committee “in consultation with the Indian team management” has decided to rest the Baroda allrounder to manage his workload and “negate any possibility of a major injury concern”. He will undergo a period of strength training at the NCA and no replacement has been named. It probably drops a hint about the team plans for the home Tests.
India have three spinners in the squad – R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav – and it’s very likely that all three would feature in the playing XI. Pitches could be prepared accordingly to assist the spinners. Two seasons ago, when Ravi Shastri was the Indian team director, South Africa had been decimated on dustbowls in a four-Test series. Two Test matches had finished inside three days and the highest total of the series was 334, scored by India in the first innings at Delhi.
The Nagpur pitch was so bad that the ICC handed it an official warning. Spinners collectively took 95 wickets in that series. Ashwin and Jadeja shared 54 scalps between them.
The forthcoming three-Test series would be Shastri’s first home Test assignment in his second stint at the helm; this time as the head coach. It would be interesting to see his strategy against the Lankans. Even against the Asian opponents, India are always comfortable at playing on spin-friendly surfaces at home. That’s their strength and it would be naïve not to optimise the home advantage.
The first Test, however, is at Eden Gardens and its re-laid pitches have become more seamer-friendly rather than assisting turn. Maybe, the hosts would require a seaming allrounder in such conditions. But with Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the squad, and given his batting improvement, India might already have a like-for-like replacement for Pandya. “I have natural talent and I know I can bat. Especially when it comes to Tests, I can continue,” Kumar had said last month.
Earlier this year, during their 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka at the opposition’s backyard, India had played two spinners – Ashwin and Jadeja in the first two Tests, and Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav in the final Test because Jadeja was suspended – while Pandya played a hugely vital role as a seam-bowling allrounder.
The pitches there assisted spin, as 17 wickets from Ashwin and 13 from Jadeja would attest. Yadav accounted for five scalps in the only Test he played. But unlike the Galle in 2015, the pitches in Sri Lanka this time were not rank turners. Maybe, Dinesh Chandimal and company were a bit overawed by Ashwin and Jadeja’s presence in the opposition ranks. They probably missed a trick by not fully backing their strength.
Two years ago at Galle, Rangana Herath had made short work of Indian batting, snapping up seven wickets and securing a 63-run victory for his side, as India failed to chase a victory target of 176 in the fourth innings. India bounced back to win the series 2-1, but the team’s vulnerability against quality spin on rank turners had been exposed.
Last season, India played 13 home Tests, winning 10 and losing one. Two matches ended in draws. Anil Kumble was the head coach and the Tests had been played on very fair wickets. Seven Test matches went into the fifth day. The only time the hosts demanded a tailor-made surface, in Pune, the match finished inside three days, with Australia winning by 333 runs. Left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe had a 12-wicket match haul. Nathan Lyon returned with five.
In between, at a World T20 fixture last year, two New Zealand spinners, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi, had skittled out India for 79.
During an interview with The Indian Express at Colombo a couple of months ago, Shastri admitted that the modern-day Indian batters don’t play spin as well as their predecessors on turning pitches. “Because of cramped international schedule, they don’t get an opportunity to play domestic cricket regularly. During our times, we had the opportunity to develop our batting skills against quality spin in the Ranji Trophy,” Shastri had said.
Sri Lanka have three frontline spinners in their current touring party – Herath, Lakshan Sandakan and Dilruwan Perera. Herath revels in rolling back the years. He is fresh from 16 wickets from two Tests against Pakistan.
Perera also contributed well to Sri Lanka’s 2-0 series win, bagging 12 scalps. Sandakan had a poor series but in favourable conditions the chinaman bowler can be quite a handful; he bamboozled the Aussies with his ‘mystery’ at home last year.
So, it’s very likely that the Indian team management would prefer to play on good pitches, assisting spin. Collectively, the Indian spinners are better than their Sri Lankan counterparts. The two-day warm-up game between the tourists and the Board President’s XI, starting today, should give an idea about the Sri Lankan team’s current form. Ahead of the match, the Board President’s XI captain Sanju Samson said he didn’t receive any message from the Indian team management with regard to having a specific approach/target against the visitors. But feedbacks might be taken after the game, as work will begin in earnest.