When Ravindra Jadeja was handed a one-Test suspension under the ambit of an unfathomable regulation, India must have felt aggrieved. After all, Jadeja only recently rose to number one on the list of all-rounders, and India's fortunes in Test cricket have been tightly hitched to his performances. And his forced omission at this crucial juncture when India are on the cusp of their maiden Test series whitewash abroad (three Tests or more) might just suck a bit of momentum out of the Indian side.
But, as the futility of the situation would have slowly perforated, the Schadenfreude at play would have also become obvious. At least to some, like Kuldeep Yadav, who has watched his team clinch an eighth straight series win from the confines of the dressing room, when he orchestrated the denouement of the seventh, with a four-wicket haul in his previous and only Test. Fully aware that one swallow does not make a balmy summer, Kuldeep also acknowledged the beauty and the difficulty of trying to break into a side that’s ranked number one in the world, and boasts of top two bowlers in its ranks, who just happen to be spinners.
“Definitely you will have to wait for your chance if number one and two spinners (Ashwin and Jadeja) in the world are in the same Test squad. You cannot walk into the team so easily and you have to wait as that’s the rule of cricket,” a pragmatic Kuldeep told the media.
Yet, it now seems possible that this opportunity he has patiently waited for, and one that should rightfully and exclusively be his own, might have opened its doors to another candidate — Axar Patel. Patel was added to the squad as Jadeja's replacement; no guarantor of a spot in the XI, but an addition that's bound to stiffen the competition for one spot.
Ordinarily, in such a situation, India under Virat Kohli and even his predecessor MS Dhoni have tended to prefer the player originally part of the squad, rather than the one summoned as backup. There's simple merit in that method considering that the player has been training with the team, and is therefore not only acquainted with conditions and the opposition, but also mentally tuned in to rise to the occasion, if required.
It also validates the original selection over that of a player called-up merely as a replacement under exceptional circumstances. Nobody, in the game's history could have possibly done more than Karun Nair, who scored a triple hundred to make a case for retention. But when the time came he had to make way for Ajinkya Rahane in the subsequent Test against Australia. In fact, Kuldeep himself was selected ahead of an injured Kohli’s replacement, Shreyas Iyer, for the Dharamsala Test against Australia, although the move was purely strategic, with the series on the line and twenty wickets paramount. Perhaps Yadav could find refuge in such instances, till such a time that the team is announced, and his fate unveiled.
Pseudo egalitarianism aside, all players don't necessarily held the same standard. While all players are equal, some are more equal than others. Generally, the beneficiaries of this pluralistic system are batsmen, especially in India. Kuldeep has not got the same public reassurances from his captain yet, that KL Rahul did ahead of the second Test.
Furthermore, barring uncertainty over Kuldeep’s selection that should really have been automatic (may well be so), the merit in Axar’s inclusion is cringe-worthy. A regular in India’s limited overs set-up, Patel's forays into long-form cricket haven’t quite been as impressive, especially with the ball. In fact, the left-arm spinner, considered by some as a like-for-like replacement for Jadeja, has hardly featured for Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy over the last couple of seasons. Although, a lot of the time he was unavailable due to national commitments.
While in his five appearances for Gujarat last year, he failed to make the top fifty wicket-takers list, another left-arm spinner, Shahbaz Nadeem, became the first man to take over 50-wickets in successive Ranji Trophy seasons, in the tournament’s history. Nadeem was also part of the India A unit that took on Australia in a practice match a few months ago, indicative of his proximity to an India call-up. But inexplicably, when the opportunity presented itself, Axar's efforts in the tri-series involving South Africa A and Afghanistan A were given greater consideration.
From what the BCCI and team sources have conveyed to the media, there seems to be a feeling that Axar might be able to replicate Jadeja's heroics. It's hard to say whether that's high praise for one or demeaning the efforts of another. Or, if it is an archetypal case of perception, bordering on delusion, taking precedence over substance, which is a dangerous trend-setter as far as Test selections go.