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Will Ashwin sit out an overseas Test again?

Last updated on 24 Dec 2023 | 06:15 AM
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Will Ashwin sit out an overseas Test again?

While India's batting line-up is all but decided, picking two spots in the bowling line-up will be a head-scratcher for the management

Test cricket in South Africa has brought bittersweet memories for India. Over their last five tours, they have won one Test four times, taking a series lead on three occasions. However, it remains to be the only country where India are yet to win a Test series. 

Their last attempt summed up their fortunes in the Rainbow Nation. India began the three-match series with a win against what was arguably South Africa’s weakest batting line-up at home. But India squandered their best chance with the ball. In a series with a mean batting average of 25.2, Indian seamers conceded 40.4 runs per wicket in the fourth innings. Consequently, the Men In Blue failed to defend targets in consecutive matches, losing the series 1-2. 

Heading into their ninth Test series in South Africa, India’s batting order is all but decided despite multiple changes from the 2021/22 series. KL Rahul will take the gloves and move in the middle order, replacing Rishabh Pant. Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill will fill in for Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. Rohit Sharma is back and will open the innings alongside young Yashasvi Jaiswal. Ravindra Jadeja will return after missing the last tour due to injury. 

Virat Kohli is the only constant in the batting order by presence and position.

It is deciding the bowling attack where the management will have to scratch their head. Mohammed Shami is ruled out due to injury. Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj and Ravindra Jadeja are the only sure starters, leaving two spots up for debate. There are three combinations possible. We look at the dynamics of each one of them. 

Prasidh Krishna, the third seamer?

A Test debut for Prasidh Krishna was long imminent. Mukesh Kumar made his Test debut in the West Indies, but back then, Prasidh was still in the final stages of recovery from a stress fracture. 

In Shami’s absence, Prasidh is all but certain to earn his maiden Test cap in Centurion. The right-armer was among the few players who played the three T20Is on the tour but were kept out of the ODIs to play red-ball games and prepare for the Test series. And he picked a hat-trick for India A in that time. Playing a red-ball fixture against South Africa A, he snapped 5/43 in the first innings, cleaning up the tail with a hat-trick. 

The right-armer offers something different in the pace attack. 6’ 2 in height, Prasidh’s stock balls are based on generating extra bounce by hitting the good length area. Nearly 60% of his 37 wickets in white-ball cricket have come from good and back-of-a-length area. It was this modus operandi that fast-tracked him into white-ball cricket in the first place. 

Hence, South Africa is the perfect place for Prasidh to begin his journey in whites. If all goes according to plan, he can be a future asset for India, irrespective of the conditions. 

Two spinners or Ashwin on the bench?

One of the easiest decisions to make for India on their last South Africa safari was playing Ravichandran Ashwin in the XI. The tactic of playing four seamers in SENA countries has always come at the cost of Ashwin’s spot. But in the 2021/22 bout, Jadeja was injured, allowing Ashwin to play as the lone spinner. 

Now that Jadeja is back, the age-old dilemma returns too. With his experience, Ashwin is the best number eight batter in the squad to deepen the batting resources. However, the recent history at the Super Sport Park goes against including a second spinner. 

In the last five Tests at the venue, spinners have picked only 5% of the total wickets. That number needs no further explanation. The bowling average in the second innings (27) is better than the first (127.5), but overall, it is the pacers who rule the roost in Centurion. Hence, going with Ashwin would mean playing a pacer less in pace-friendly conditions. 

The last time Ashwin played at the Centurion, the Boxing Day Test in 2021, he went wicketless in the first innings. 

Shardul’s X-factor....

Lack of control with the ball, a golden arm that strikes most unexpectedly and mercurial batting. This is what the Shardul Thakur package offers you. It is not the best fourth seam-bowling option, but the Indian team and Thakur have made it work in overseas conditions. 

Thakur featured in the first Test against West Indies which means he is still in the scheme of things. However, his bowling numbers have dipped of late. In his last three Tests, dating back to July 2022, he has managed only four wickets at 58 runs apiece. But India will remember the last time they toured South Africa, Thakur was the second-highest wicket-taker for the side. He bagged 12 wickets, averaging 19.1 runs apiece at the back of his 7/61 in the second Test. Thakur’s batting value is also mercurial. His last five Test innings read 0, 51, 4, 1, 5. 

Hence, Thakur is an x-factor with high variance, both with bat and ball. But if India choose to field four seamers, we may see him in action.

…or the risk of a long tail


Mukesh Kumar is only one Test old in his career but provides better control than Shardul Thakur. Mukesh’s bowling style is quite similar to Shami's in terms of hitting the seam. However, he is considerably slower than Shami, which makes the veteran effective. Moreover, Mukesh’s inclusion will mean no batting post number seven (unless the management has faith in Jasprit Bumrah down the order). 

With three batters in the top six having never played a Test in South Africa, it is a big gamble. Especially when India have a history of “15 minutes of bad play” crashing them down in big Test matches. 

Thus, there are pros and cons for every bowling combination. That is consistent with India’s bowling structure in overseas Tests - there is no perfect answer. And it looks like that “not perfect answer” would be featuring Thakur again. 

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