INDIA ARE yet to go in with the same playing XI twice in a row this year. That’s 10 Tests and 14 changes in personnel overall. If read in isolation, you might mistake it as a team in a state of flux, unrest even. Not a settled unit and certainly not an unbeaten one on top of the world.
Already against England, they have put forth three different opening combinations, two wicketkeepers, and four spinners. And it’s not like the enforced game of musical chairs was set to end at the Wankhede Stadium on the eve of their 11th Test of the year, even when the out-of-form Ajinkya Rahane entered the nets on Wednesday to receive routine throwdowns.
For, only minutes into the session, Rahane was left throbbing in pain, the index finger on his right hand completely bent out of shape. Raghu, the throwdown specialist, had got one to rise off a length sharply and struck Rahane on the gloves. Within minutes, a majority of the support staff was around him with physio Patrick Farhart escorting him out. Within a couple of hours, it was official. Rahane was ruled out from playing his first Test on his home ground.
Mohammed Shami was also limping around, in visible discomfort, with a crepe bandage on his left knee in the adjoining net. He didn’t look like someone all set to take the new ball the following day. Another cross, another tick with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who bowled a lengthy spell, the most likely replacement.
Rahane’s injury meant Karun Nair will now get to add to his maiden Test cap in Mohali, where his debut was a story of two balls, a delectable boundary to get off the mark and a run-out while responding to a call for a non-existent single from captain Virat Kohli. It isn’t all doom and gloom on the injury front though with KL Rahul a certainty to regain his place at the top of the order alongside Murali Vijay. But Rahul’s return would mean three players will take the field in new positions on Thursday, at least as far as the series is concerned.
Parthiv Patel will now have to be slotted down the order—maybe at No.7 with R Ashwin unlikely to give up the No.6 spot that he’s made his own. Coach Anil Kumble could only smile coyly and say, “I hope that doesn’t go on. There has to be some stop at some stage.”
Over the next five days, Kohli not only will have adjustments to make once India takes the field in terms of bowling plans, but with Rahane out, the middle order will look slightly shakier putting extra pressure on the captain’s wicket. India’s nearly unprecedented success, though, has been built around how adjusting they’ve been with the incessant changes.
The 2-0 scoreline with two to go is testament to that. If Parthiv stepped in as opener with remarkable conviction after an eight-year hiatus from Test cricket, Bhuvneshwar is coming in with two five-wicket hauls in his three previous Tests. And the lower-order batting has made up for that other incongruity, Rahane going through a lean patch in a Test series.
But Shami will be missed, even if Bhuvneshwar did turn the Test around with his second-innings spell the last time he showed up in whites, against New Zealand in Kolkata two months ago. While the spinners have hogged the wickets as expected, it’s Shami who’s provided the knockout blows for Kohli. For one, the English batsmen can now boldly get on to the front foot. Umesh Yadav can bowl a mean bouncer too, but he’s not the sort who’ll be at the opposition’s throat as relentlessly as his new-ball partner.
Alastair Cook will breathe easier too, considering his travails against Shami so far. And he did seem a tad surprised when asked about Bhuvneshwar during the press conference — he of course wasn’t privy to Shami’s discomfort — and even said he’d be surprised if India changed the new-ball line-up. This is a reprieve for Cook who returns to a venue on which he scored an inspirational century last time around — which often gets forgotten thanks to Kevin Pietersen’s incredible knock.
With no Shami, the focus will therefore fall back on spin, which doesn’t necessarily make life easier for the visitors with Ashwin, Jadeja and Jayant Yadav having kept the English batsmen on tenterhooks.
Cook will empathise with what Kohli has had to deal with. In Haseeb Hameed, it looked like the cricketing Cupid had finally got it right for the England captain at the top. But Hameed’s gone, and in comes another youngster in Keaton Jennings, who Cook claimed to have never met before. Stuart Broad finally seemed to have come into his own in Indian conditions and got a hold over some of the Indian batsmen, Kohli included, during an inspired spell in Vizag. But he will be another notable absentee on the field in Mumbai, and probably the most significant one at that as far as the English are concerned.
With Gareth Batty looking out of depth, it’s likely they will go in with a more English-looking pace attack picking either Steven Finn or Jake Ball in place of the veteran off-spinner.
The series is at stake. The fourth Test is a must-win if the English want to keep it alive. They have no choice but to focus on winning rather than who they have in their ranks to do it. They could just take a leaf out of Kohli’s and India’s book. They have no excuse left anyway.