45 – the number of consecutive matches that India have changed their Test playing eleven. Virat Kohli has led through a majority of this time, and he has made 38 changes with the rest falling to MS Dhoni (at the end of his reign) and Ajinkya Rahane (when he steps in for Kohli).
It is a well-publicised figure, yet there is one factoid behind relatively unknown. To start with, this run of chopping and changing the playing eleven began four years ago at Southampton, the very ground where India play their fourth Test against England starting Thursday.
When India came to the Rose Bowl last time in 2014, they were leading the five-match series 1-0. Dhoni felt the need to change the winning combination from Lord’s because ‘all-rounder’ Stuart Binny hadn’t done enough and the skipper wanted an extra batsman in Rohit Sharma. It didn’t work out well, as England won by 266 runs, and then went on to win at Manchester as well as at the Oval to turn the series around with a 3-1 margin.
India come to this ground with tables turned this time around. They are down 2-1 in the series, and need to win both the remaining matches to win the contest. England are in a more comfortable position – they only need to draw one game to prevent India from winning the series and two draws will guarantee a series’ win. The green-top at the Rose Bowl though reduces the prospect of a draw.
That green-top has fuelled pre-match talk that India’s long run of chopping and changing may be about to come to an end. It will be ironical if it so transpires, for this is where that run began, as aforementioned.
It makes logical sense too. At Trent Bridge, India hit the perfect team balance they had been searching for. In the first two Tests at Edgbaston and Lord’s, the Indian team seemed lacking the balance to win. Leaving out Cheteshwar Pujara from the first Test was a staggering mistake, and then leaving out the third pacer for a second spinner in the second Test was a move bordering on foolishness.
Pujara was dropped on form, or gut feeling, whichever explanation you like better. Umesh Yadav was dropped on whimsical fancy, much like how Jasprit Bumrah was picked in the third Test without any match practice under his belt whatsoever. But sometimes, just occasionally, these regular punts by the team management work out very well. At Nottingham thus, the Indian team selection hit a tangible sweet spot.
Simply put, it was their best playing eleven on the park. Out-of-form Murali Vijay was left out, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul did a job; Pujara, Kohli and Rahane scored runs in the middle; Rishabh Pant made an awe-inducing debut both in front and behind the wickets; Hardik Pandya finally showcased his ability as all-rounder; R Ashwin fought through the pain barrier and bowled to hold one end up in the second innings; Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Bumrah bowled their hearts out.
How do you change a perfected formula? Is there even any need to do so? On Wednesday evening, when the Indian team management sits down to pick their eleven for the fourth Test, they will wonder about these questions and more.
The thing about this Indian think-tank is that they simply do not rely on what information is in front of them. Some of their decisions in the past underline this very same argument. For example, promoting Rohit Sharma at number three during 2015-16 in Sri Lanka and West Indies. Once upon a time, just to fit Rohit in the line-up, Kohli even batted at number three at St. Lucia against West Indies (2016), thus dropping Pujara again. It explains why this team management was able to easily drop Rahane in South Africa, despite his brilliant overseas record.
Such mindless chopping and changing isn’t restricted to batting alone. On the same South African tour, they even left out Bhuvneshwar Kumar at Centurion after he bowled superbly in the first Test at Cape Town. A flatter track for that match was given as the reason, and such logic is a key factor behind their moves. Kohli – and coach Ravi Shastri – like to chop and change depending on conditions, opposition or simply their gut feeling.
So, what could be the reasoning for any changes in Southampton?
Well, Ashwin’s fitness, for one. He didn’t bowl in the nets on Monday, but did bowl on Tuesday. At the time of writing, India were yet to practice on Wednesday, so much will depend on how comfortable he feels. If he hasn’t recovered from hip stress sufficiently, Ravindra Jadeja will step in. The team management will also consider an additional batsman (Karun Nair) if the conditions are too bowler friendly (read green wicket).
That same green-top could take Bumrah out of the equation too. If Kumar could be left out owing to a flat track in Centurion, the same applies here. Bumrah gets movement off the surface and seams the ball. He doesn’t swing it off the grass or off the air – instead, Yadav is able to do that. Fact of the matter is that this team management backs its team resources for different conditions, and thus chopping the team at the slightest pretext comes easily to them.
Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is this. What if they get it wrong, like at Birmingham or Lord’s? In a must not lose or draw situation, India cannot afford to make selection mistakes.
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