Playing four pacers and a spinner is India’s preferred template in these conditions. Virat Kohli sounded resolute while stating this after the first Test. He reiterated it after a defeat in the third.
Kohli’s insinuation has merit. The 60 overs of hell for England at Lord’s was possible only because of the relentless pressure from each of the four pacers. Even on the flat second-day wicket at Headingley with nothing really to fight for, Indian bowlers took all England wickets for 302 runs.
As a player on away tours during the early phase of his career and as a captain since late 2014, Kohli has a first-hand experience of India toiling on the field with pressure released from an end time and again. “The pressure from the fourth seamer is important sometimes and taking only three seamers means that the spinners have to come in quickly,” said Kohli after the Headingley Test.
While this ensures sustained periods of pressure with the ball, it has resulted in exactly three issues. One, India have played three back-to-back Tests with arguably the best spinner in the world cheering on from the dressing room. Two, unless England bowlers prioritize sending a message instead of getting the batsmen out, the tail is considerably long. Three, there is no batting cushion and thus, the team cannot afford multiple middle-order batsmen to be in a rut.
The demands to play Ravichandran Ashwin have gone exponentially louder since his exclusion in the first Test. Then there are voices that now feel that Rishabh Pant is too high for number six and thus India need to play an extra batsman. Add to it those who have lost patience in the long rope given to Ajinkya Rahane. As a standalone opinion, each of these arguments have merit. But every argument affects the combination in a different manner.
For India to finalize the personnel for the must-win Test at the Oval, they need to nail down a combination they feel would be good enough first. As things stand, there is no easy way out and each option comes with its set of pros and cons.
Option One: Stick with 4 pacers and 1 spinner; swap Jadeja with Ashwin
Given left-handers troubling India at Headingley, Oval’s reputation and Ravindra Jadeja’s returns with the ball so far, Ashwin’s comeback in the XI is inevitable. The question that needs answering is in place of whom?
One option is to opt for a like for like replacement and play Ashwin in place of Jadeja.
Pros: On most metrics, Ashwin is currently the best spinner in the world. To left-handers, he might be the best ever. To Ashwin, sees left-handers as walking wickets. He can be India’s answer to Dawid Malan and Rory Burns’ quest of coming back to form. Moreover, Jadeja has done only a holding job so far and has picked two wickets after bowling 76 overs in the series. Ashwin can be India’s attacking option instead.
Cons: In Jadeja, India will lose their only three-dimensional player in the squad. If Pant batting at six is too high, Ashwin at seven has been a rarity even during the Tests in the subcontinent. He has done so only four times since 2018.
In this situation, India will almost certainly have to swap one of the pacers for Shardul Thakur. One look at Ishant Sharma’s beehive from Headingley and it is not a tough choice. But Shardul’s inclusion only adds a mirage of batting depth.
Option Two: Add an extra batsman; play three pacers and a spinner
Kohli might love the aggressive option of going with four pacers in these conditions, but the bowlers can only work with what the batsmen have put together. And in the three Tests so far, Joe Root has outscored India’s three, four, five and six combined. To counter that, India might have to think about lengthening their batting line-up in the hope of some extra runs. India have Hanuma Vihari and Suryakumar Yadav to choose from.
Pros: Each of Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane have averaged under 30 since the start of 2020. Pujara got runs in the last innings at Headingley but the other two have been among the rare non-performing assets on the tour. The last time Vihari played was the epic rear-guard action in Sydney. On the other hand, Surya might not have played a Test before but is in the form of his life and comes with an x-factor.
Cons: While India have been carrying Vihari around since the last time the two sides met at the Oval, he has not had a decent run. His inclusion does not infuse a lot of confidence since he averages under 30 in every country that is not the West Indies. Unlike KL Rahul, he did not go big in the practice match as well. Moreover, apart from the victories in Australia in 2018, India have not won away Tests in SENA countries with this combination.
"I don't believe in that balance (extra batter) and I have never believed in that balance because either you can try and save a defeat or you can try and win a game. If your top six (including keeper) don't do the job there is no guarantee that the extra guy can bail you out.” With these remarks, Kohli has made it clear that they are unlikely to go with this combination.
Option Three: Play three pacers and two spinners
This has been the combination India have won the most Tests with. This is their go-to squad make-up at home where they are borderline invincible. This was also the preferred combination when both Ashwin and Jadeja were available after the Adelaide debacle in Australia.
If there is a venue in England that is closer to home for India, it is the Oval. Not only it is the venue that has been the best for the batsmen, but it is also the one that assists spinners the most. So no place better to go with the bread and butter option.
Pros: India will have options to counter every match-up. If they are bowling on a day-five track, the two spinners could come in handy. India’s batting will not look shallow with Ashwin batting at number eight.
Cons: Given Ishant’s form, there is no real con in this option. But, the three pacers might still have to do a lot of lifting especially in the first innings which might take a toll given a quick turnaround for the fifth Test. The tail will not be long but India will not be able to withstand another middle-order collapse.
In theory, even if Jadeja fails to recover from the knee injury, India have the option of including Axar Patel if they are to go with this combination. Especially when the English batsmen still have lingering nightmares from their time against Axar earlier this year.
Even within the combination headaches, India have a few things to consider. Is it the right time to move on from Rahane? Then there is the question of workload for the three main pacers with one more Test to go. Every move they make now will have strong repercussions in a must-win game. As things stand, there are no easy answers for India.