The Indian team checked out of their castle-like and exotically located Lighthouse Hotel and left for Colombo at around noon on Sunday. You would expect the mood in the bus to have moved from shock and awe to being sombre, and understandably so. In a manic 24-hour period in Galle, India had just gone from being on the verge of a dramatic innings victory to being handed a comprehensive beating. And it’s understandable if the batsmen sat quietly peering out of the window at the vast expanse of green, wondering what just hit them.
Spare a thought for the bowlers though. Going into the first Test, they had been given a task. They had been asked to get 20 wickets. The team management had made statements about how taking 20 wickets was more key to winning a Test than scoring big runs. To their credit, R Ashwin & Co had delivered their part of the deal.
They had bowled out Sri Lanka for 183 within two sessions on a wicket, which did offer turn but you wouldn’t say was totally in their favour. Ideally, if Messrs Oxenford and Llong had not erred in dramatic fashion before the lunch-break on the third day, the Indian bowlers might have seen off the hosts for a paltry score once again. But it wasn’t to be. Yet, they had ensured that their batsmen had to chase a sub-200 total, which since 1932 India had only failed to chased down once—in that dramatic collapse at Barbados in 1997.
Without a fight
Then their colleagues in the top-half of the batting order had gone and fallen to Rangana Herath and Tharindu Kaushal without a semblance of a fight.
So as they prepare for battle once more in four days’ time in the country’s capital, you wonder whether this young Indian batting line-up has the nous or the experience to back-up a five-bowler strategy.
And their first reaction to the batting debacle, calling up Stuart Binny as an addition and not replacement to the 15-member squad, only highlights the apparent lack of clarity in their approach going forward.
Though sources revealed that it was the team management that had asked for an all-rounder in the mix, you wonder whether Binny fits the bill. The 31-year-old, who played three Tests in England last year in the same role and went wicket-less, is not someone who can come in as a fifth bowler. If anything he’ll be more a four-and-a-half bowler, unless he’s thrown the new-ball. More so, on the wickets in Sri Lanka, which you wouldn’t expect to assist his condition-dependent medium-pace. The next Test is after all at the P’Sara Oval and not Trent Bridge.
That would mean Binny comes in more as a batsman who can trundle in as a fill-in bowler who could keep things tight, rather than someone who assists in the ‘20 wickets’ campaign. But his inclusion is likely to also put an end to the three-spinner experiment, which had its merit to an extent at Galle but overall seemed a tad superfluous. Even if it looks like an attempt more at papering the cracks than plugging a hole.
Whether they want to admit it or not, India were clearly a batsman short at Galle. They got away with it in the first innings with Dhawan and Kohli putting on 227 runs for the third wicket. But there was scant resistance on either side of that partnership with Tharindu Kaushal looking increasingly dangerous, despite his tendency to be profligate.
The lack of confidence in the middle-order, and with Murali Vijay’s right hamstring still in a ‘getting better’ phase, only puts more pressure on the bowlers. If they’re job, as Shastri put it so vividly, is to defend whatever total their batsmen put on the board, they will only feel the pinch even more after having seen their batsmen crumble so haplessly. Do they start stressing every time there is a 100-run partnership?
Galle also would have taught them that playing five bowlers on a helpful track could be counter-productive. That it is a strategy that brings the nature of the pitch into the spotlight. Like Kohli admitted he hadn’t read the pitch well enough.
He hadn’t expected it to turn from Day One, like it did for Ashwin.
With a four-prong attack, bowlers also go into a day’s play with a rough idea of the kind of spells they have to deal with. But with an extra bowler in the mix, there is an additional pressure of making the most of each spell that comes their way, and early. Four overs, where you fail to make an impact, and the captain’s already keen on moving on from you. With Harbhajan in the mix, it was only natural for the young captain to bank on his veteran’s experience. To go to him, whenever his other two spinners weren’t providing him with the stranglehold he was looking for, which was often during the Lankans’ second innings with Dinesh Chandimal in full flow. But Harbhajan didn’t look at his best, and if anything lacked the confidence—a trait that has always been linked to his success—to be incisive enough.
What about Bhajji?
And if Binny does get a look in, it will be Harbhajan who is most likely to miss out, especially with Amit Mishra having returned to Test cricket with a couple of impressive spells, and five wickets to show for it. So Kohli at least doesn’t have to worry about rotating three spinners. But it remains to be seen whether Binny’s inclusion either strengthens the batting or adds a sting to the tail of their bowling.
For now, you can just say that their maiden ride on the Dakshin Expressway a week ago — to Galle — would have been a lot more enjoyable and optimistic than the one they took on Sunday.