Virat Kohli is on a peculiar streak. In 29 Tests as skipper, he has never played the same playing eleven in two consecutive Tests. Mostly this is down to odd injuries cropping up, or in the case of the Pallekele Test, we had Ravindra Jadeja sitting out due to suspension, extending his streak as Kuldeep Yadav was named his replacement. Indeed, it is expected to continue to 30 matches when India play Test cricket next in December, as Jadeja will be set for an automatic return.
The other peculiar thing about this streak is the winning percentage. Kohli has led India to 19 victories, albeit most of them have come in familiar sub-continental (at home or in Sri Lanka) and tropical (West Indies) conditions. Even then, this is staggering consistency. In between the team’s last two losses, in Galle (2015) versus Sri Lanka and in Pune (2017) versus Australia, there is a gap of 19 unbeaten Tests.
Irrespective of conditions on offer, or the quality of the opposition for that matter, this consistent run can be attributed to one particular factor — bench strength. Consider the scenario in the third Test in Pallekele — the world’s No 1 bowler sits out and there is no hiccup whatsoever. A 22-year-old takes his place and goes on to pick 4-40 in the first innings of the Test, wherein Kohli handed the ball to him ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin. This changeover is smooth almost as if Kuldeep is a hardened Test cricketer already.
This problem of plenty is best depicted in the manner Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been used in Test cricket over the last couple years. Whenever faced with a lively pitch, like in St. Lucia (against West Indies) or in Kolkata (against New Zealand), both in 2016, Kohli has brought Bhuvneshwar Kumar into the playing eleven. On both occasions, Umesh Yadav made way for the swing bowler, who then duly proceeded to take five-wicket hauls in those aforementioned matches.
There are two ways to look at this. One, this is a problem of plenty for Kohli which is only a good thing. The Indian skipper looks to rotate as per conditions and the opposition — horses for courses if you will — and this is a concept that the whole team has bought into. Umesh had no issues sitting out those two matches, despite the simple fact that he has been India’s best bowler in the Test arena over the past 18 months. Similarly, Bhuvneshwar is not bothered that his chances are not so easily forthcoming, atleast until India start traveling overseas again.
The second way of looking at this is in the manner of selection headache it presents. Kohli knows that he has a plethora of options available to him for each position, barring one or two in the batting line-up. The captain himself, along with Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are indispensable to the team, and they have adequate cover in all other positions. The question to ask here is if the team management — led by Kohli of course — needs to keep them fit and raring to go at all points in time.
No, this doesn’t imply that players who do not feature in certain matches or series slag off away from the game. They are hard at work in the nets, putting in the yards and hoping for selection in the next match. For the likes of Bhuvneshwar and Ishant Sharma, this process has been repeated thrice in this haplessly one-sided Test series as they sat out all three games. It makes one wonder if they should have played the dead rubber at Pallekele considering India had already wrapped up the series by then.
“You have to understand that we are also trying to attain a certain consistency on the field. That is why we will try to retain as much of the team (from the first two Tests) as possible,” Kohli had said ahead of the Pallekele Test. He had then congratulated his squad members on the understanding of the tricky selection situation at hand. “Each of them knows that their chance will come. While some players are in good form, they will eventually have to make way at some point. There aren’t too many questions about selection because they are fully comfortable with the situation.”
It poses another peculiar question though. As mentioned earlier, Kohli’s streak is fully expected to tally up again at some point when Murali Vijay returns to the Test fold. This Indian team has a standing policy on players regaining fitness — first-choice picks walk back into the eleven and reclaim their spots. We have seen this with KL Rahul in Visakhapatnam against England (when Gautam Gambhir made way) and then with Rahane who returned against Bangladesh in Hyderabad (when Karun Nair was dropped despite his sensational triple-hundred in Chennai).
Of course, this provides certain surety to the players who can shrug off their downtime and come back, concentrating only on fitness and form. What happens though when you find it tough to drop the incumbent, someone like Shikhar Dhawan, say for example? The left-hander was only a third-choice opener by default in this series, and technically should have been left out of the SSC Test, never mind his 190 off 168 balls in Galle.
Dropping Abhinav Mukund — in the guise of impact — was a tad unfair, yes. Will the same parameter apply to Vijay as well then because Dhawan has only gone on and further impressed with 119 off 123 balls in Pallekele? Furthermore, India have four openers to pick from at present, and there is only place for three when the selectors sit down to decide on the Test squad for South Africa.
Bench strength, as Kohli is finding out, is a boon, most of the time that is. Curiously enough, it can also be a headache.