Never mind India’s 4-0 loss against England in 2011, Praveen Kumar took 15 wickets in three Tests at 29.53. Then, in 2014, when India lost 3-1 again, Bhuvneshwar Kumar took 19 wickets in five Tests at 26.63. Do you know what’s the common thread here, apart from the fact that they both hail from Uttar Pradesh?
Both Kumars are medium-pace swing bowlers with that special ability to move the ball in English conditions. Both finished top of the wicket-takers’ list for India on those respective tours. Both will not be present on this tour, with Praveen relegated to making domestic T20 appearances while Bhuvneshwar is out injured for at least the first three Tests.
Perhaps, the underlying conclusion herein is that India do not have a similar swing bowler in their Test squad this time around. So, the big question: how will they take 20 wickets in the first Test starting on August 1 in Birmingham?
Umesh Yadav: If you look at India’s Test series in the past year, India like to pick in-form players. Mostly, this extends to the batting line-up but at home it doesn’t really matter because R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja do the job. Away, in South Africa, they played Jasprit Bumrah ahead of Umesh Yadav as part of a pace troika. For this first Test, they do not have that particular option.
It was an unfair move for Yadav, who has amply shown in the past couple years that he is India’s most improved bowler. Since 2015, from the spin-dominated home series against South Africa, his career average has dipped to 31.78 in 22 matches from 34.94 in 37 Tests overall. It is a remarkable turn-around given that he has not compromised on his pace, like Indian fast bowlers do at his age (30 years). A key reason was working with assistant coach Sanjay Bangar to rectify a fault in his wrist position at the time of delivery.
Barring the surprise element that Bumrah brought in South Africa (a decision that was made as early as September last year), Yadav would have played in that three-match series. He had returned 11 wickets in 5 Tests against Sri Lanka prior to that, and perhaps it was not considered good enough form for facing the Proteas. Now, that excuse isn’t valid anymore as his 18-over spell of 4-35 showed in the tour match against Essex. Bumrah isn’t available, Yadav is in form – he has to play.
Ishant Sharma and/or Mohammed Shami: Ideally, India like to play a three-pacer attack when traveling away from the sub-continent. That is par-for-course strategy and the rest follows. Yet, there is an oddity about this English summer, which has seen an unprecedented heat wave, and thus brings in the question of whether India can play with only two full-time pacers. At the time of writing though, Birmingham was lashed with heavy rains, indicating a break in the prevalent high temperatures. Does that mean three pacers again?
If India do break mould in opting for two pacers, the team management will face a difficult call. Ishant Sharma is India’s most experienced bowler and he can hold up one end to put pressure on the opposition, a trait of high value in overseas Tests. Shami, meanwhile, is India’s most versatile Test bowler – he can move the new ball, reverse the old one, hit the deck hard and hustle the batsmen. India have to pick one, but just how? If the most recent overseas Test series against South Africa is a consideration, then it should be Ishant. Shami didn’t turn up in the first innings of all three Tests there, something India cannot afford in a two-man pace attack.
R Ashwin: This is a no-brainer. Not only is Ashwin India’s foremost spinner, but in this scenario (read conditions), he is also the primary all-rounder. Yes, you read that right. Hardik Pandya averages 36.80 in 7 Tests, but take away the Sri Lanka series and he struggled to hit the 20-mark in South Africa (19.83 in 3 Tests). Ashwin averages 30.46 in 58 Tests and this is a record accumulated over time. Moreover he is more adept at batting in English conditions, wherein graft is a necessity. On his batting alone, he should be considered the all-rounder in a five-bowler attack.
In doing so, the team management will be then free to pick the second spinner as a full-time bowler, and it will come down to a shoot out between Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja. Given form, and how Kuldeep has bowled on this England tour thus far, Jadeja is behind him in the pecking order. In 2014, he managed only 9 wickets in 4 Tests, which was quite underwhelming given his role as lead spinner over Ashwin. Wrist spin provides ample wicket-taking opportunities in English conditions and the team management will be keen to utilize it.
With this approach, India can play around with two different combinations. Ashwin at number seven allows them to pick a three-pacer attack plus an extra spinner (or even an extra batsman depending on conditions). Additionally, they can opt for an additional seam-bowling all-rounder in Pandya.
The last two picks: Kuldeep cannot be the primary spinner ahead of Ashwin, and it simply comes down to control. Bowling with red ball in Test conditions is quite different than in white ball cricket, and if Kuldeep is taken for runs, he doesn’t have the necessary experience to bounce back. As a secondary spinner to Ashwin, it allows for different pairings of spin and pace from either end.
This is where the sun and clouds, grass or a lack of it, matter. If it rains, India can opt for a combination of Pandya and an extra pacer. If it stays dry, India can opt for Pandya and an extra spinner in Jadeja or Kuldeep. If it is a rank green-top, they can opt for an extra pacer and an additional batsman (read Karun Nair). If it is a rank turner (assuming the heat wave returns and bakes all pitches in England), they can opt for an additional batsman and another spinner. Simply put, there are a lot of combinations available with Ashwin as the primary all-rounder.
What about the first Test though? India’s practice session on Sunday was cancelled owing to rains in Birmingham and as such nobody has had a first look at the pitch just yet. But Warwickshire Country Cricket Club will host England’s 1000th Test and in the build-up CEO Neil Snowball has gone on record to say that the ‘pitch won’t be anything out of the ordinary’.
In Edgbaston terms, that means a lively wicket with something in it for both batsmen and bowlers (mostly pacers). In conclusion, three pacers, plus Ashwin and Pandya, is the optimal way to pick 20 wickets in this first Test.
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