For the fourth Test running India face a selection conundrum in the bowling department, and for the fourth Test running it is a conundrum that involves Ravichandran Ashwin. The off-spinner was made to sit out each of the first three Tests, but the decision to drop Ashwin on a good batting wicket at Headingley was labeled a blunder by many, who opined that Indian skipper Virat Kohli got his team selection wrong.
Ishant Sharma’s lackluster outing in the game - 0/92 off 22 overs - ended up adding further credibility to those claims.
The Oval, historically, is seen as one of the more spin-friendly wickets in England, and thus with conditions expected to not be tilted extremely in favour of the seamers, David Gower has claimed that it is a no brainer to draft Ashwin into the side.
Previewing the fourth Test exclusively on Cricket.com, the former England skipper asserted that, if he were Kohli, he would drop Ishant and employ a 3-2 combo (3 pacers, 2 spinners), a makeup he believes will also indirectly bolster the batting.
“For the Oval I’d go 3 and 2. And by doing that, you strengthen the batting as well, automatically,” Gower told Cricket.com previewing The Oval Test.
“I think if you look at the overall balance, what everyone seems to agree with is that Ashwin must play. He took a 6-wicket haul there for Surrey earlier in the summer, so he knows that pitch from recent experience. And if that pitch is anything like the one he bowled in, he will be looking forward to it.
“But let’s always bear in mind that pitches in County are different when compared to Test wickets. I think he is due a recall. He also adds the potential for runs as well. If Jadeja is fit, I would be playing him and Ashwin and dropping Ishant.”
But while insisting that he would like to see India opt for two spinners in the case of Jadeja being fit, Gower asserted that he is not a big fan of Kohli outrightly dismissing the idea to play an extra specialist batsman. The Indian skipper, in the aftermath of the third Test, stated that playing an extra specialist batsman will make little difference to the side, but Gower noted that in the existing set-up, there is enormous pressure on the Top 5 to deliver.
“There is always merit in a thinking if it works - that’s the simple rule of life. And when, for instance, at Lord’s, India got out of trouble, Kohli’s tactics were fine. But if you take a look at it closely, they got out of trouble at Lord’s only because two guys down the order who average less than 10, somehow put on a best part of 100 runs - now that’s not gonna happen every game and I suspect if it’ll ever happen again.
“We saw what happened at Leeds, England disposed of the tail with ease. So India cannot rely on the lower order at all, and if you have got someone like Pant - who is special but is not scoring runs - that puts even more pressure on the top order,” the former England skipper said.
Like India, England, too, have a few mini selection conundrums. Buttler’s absence - due to which Bairstow will take the gloves - means that there is space to fit in an extra specialist batsman, and the availability of Mark Wood and Chris Woakes also means that there is the possibility of there being a shake-up in the bowling department.
Gower said that he would select Ollie Pope over Dan Lawrence to replace Buttler, and backed Wood to pip Woakes to take the spot of Sam Curran, who according to him has been ‘ineffective’.
“My choice would be Pope. He is a very talented cricketer.
“Sam Curran has been ineffective with the ball and he’s not been in the runs either. He needs to be firing on both to justify his selection. I’d be tempted to bring Mark Wood for Curran. If there’s any pace on the Oval wicket, he will enjoy it.
The 64-year-old reckoned that Woakes might end up sitting out the game due to not having enough overs under his belt and might come in only if there is rotation. Woakes has not played Test cricket in over a year, and, since July, has played only one professional match - a T20 for the Birmingham Bears.
“He (Woakes) is a very good bowler but I suppose the only worry would be that he hasn’t got enough miles in the legs this summer. He hasn’t been bowling as much as he would have liked to, to be going into a game like this with maximum confidence. But I can only see him coming into the side if there is resting or rotation - you cannot drop anyone on form,” Gower said.
There is a train of thought that England will enter the fourth Test as favorites, not least because of the drubbing they handed to the visitors in Leeds, where they fired on all cylinders. India will also have to overcome the ghosts of the past, having lost against England from a similar position in 2014 where, after being 1-0 up after two Tests, they lost the last three to lose the series 3-1.
This is a side, however, that has, over the past 18 months, time and again shown its character, and thus Gower believes that it’ll be imperative for India to stay in a positive headspace heading into The Oval. This, according to Gower, can be achieved by re-visiting and analyzing what they did right in the first two Tests, where they were on top of the hosts.
“If you’re Virat Kohli or Shastri, you’d be saying, ‘Right. Let’s go back to Lord’s. Let’s just think about what we did well at Lord’s. Let’s just think about all the things we did well in the first two matches. Let’s get back to that.’
“We know India have character. We’ve all seen the team recover from even bigger losses than the one in Leeds. When you’ve got a team of that character and ability, you’re certainly never down and out,” Gower said.
Kohli, for a change, won the toss at Headingley but a debatable choice to bat first ended up backfiring as the visitors squandered the advantage by getting bowled out for 78. Taking history into account, Gower said that he would bat first at The Oval, but insisted that the toss can only become a ‘clear advantage’ if the team that bats first ends up putting a gigantic total on the board.
“Normally speaking, The Oval produces good batting pitches. One of the things that has changed is, while there used to be good lasting pitches, there is a possibility that the ball will bounce and turn a bit, bringing spin into the equation.
“I’ve not looked at the wicket, yet, but if the pitch looks white, it’s usually good for batting. The moisture disappears quickly and you’d fancy batting first because batting last could be a problem. But only if the side batting first puts up proper runs on the board.”