India’s return to Test match cricket, even if it is against an opponent who it beat comprehensively in July-August this year, will put to test the think tank's ostensible attempt to manage the workload of its frontline bowlers.
It has been a while since we watched spin-twins Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja ply their trade. They were last seen wreaking havoc in Sri Lanka, claiming 30 wickets in three Tests before being rested. Jadeja, ranked second in International Cricket Council's (ICC) rankings for Test all-rounders, made brief appearances in the One-Day Internationals (ODIs) against Australia, taking catches as a substitute in Chennai and Kolkata.
Had they not played the fourth ODI against Australia in Bengaluru, new ball bowlers Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav would also have been away from our TV sets for a long time. Shami and Umesh Yadav, who had 16 wickets between them in the three-Test series in Sri Lanka, made only a not-too-memorable appearance in that ODI against Australia.
They conceded 133 runs in their 20 overs and were quickly sent to the reserve bench before being rested ahead of the ensuing series against New Zealand. It has meant that a combination that has claimed 46 wickets in the Emerald Isle has bowled but 20 overs in the 13 ODIs and six Twenty20 internationals (T20Is) that India has figured in over the past few months.
Perhaps not many of us understand the philosophy of the break as espoused by the selectors and the team management. The powers-that-be talk of how Australia manages the workload of its players — the Aussies called it “informed player management” — but they seem to overlook the fact that the policy was put in cold storage when fast bowlers broke down in any case.
It would do no harm if selectors acknowledge India’s fortune of having bowlers for different formats — Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Ishant Sharma for Tests, and Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal, and Axar Patel for limited-overs cricket.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav and all-rounder Hardik Pandya feature in squads across formats. It is important though, that together with team management, the selectors share the right messages with players. That can avert a great deal of misconception that spreads among media and fans.
Was it really a break? The question comes up because Jadeja had called his absence from the ODI squad a setback, only to delete his tweet later. What’s more, when chief selector MSK Prasad said they were rested, Ashwin and Jadeja were playing first-class cricket, the latter even being picked as a replacement for Axar Patel when the younger left-arm spinner was injured.
The idea to rest Ashwin may have been spurred by the fact that he sent down 430.2 overs in eight Tests this year. But he has bowled more than 300 overs in first-class cricket since then, including 142 in three Ranji Trophy matches. Jadeja has also warmed-up for the series against Sri Lanka by scoring 258 runs and bowling 118 overs for Saurashtra in three Ranji Trophy games.
It would not be wrong to assume that cricketers have always been wary of ceding their place in their respective national teams for reasons other than injury or illness. Staging a comeback is never easy, especially if the replacements do well. Perhaps, India has embraced a new philosophy of making cricketers feel secure about their places.
Therefore, it will be interesting indeed to see how refreshed — and eager — the Indian bowling unit is when it takes on Sri Lanka in the Tests.
The Ashwin-Jadeja pair has claimed 44 Test wickets apiece in 2017; Jadeja playing one match fewer than Ashwin’s eight. Only South Africa's Kagiso Rabada (54 wickets), Sri Lanka's Rangana Herath (51) and Australia's Nathan Lyon (46) have more scalps this year than the Indian spin-twins.
Modern cricket — especially the competitive Indian team over the past decade and a half — does not allow for players to be nursing a grievance at not being picked for a particular format. VVS Laxman ended his career without ever playing a World Cup, Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay have had to retain their edge when picked for Test cricket alone.
Perhaps as a result of India’s desire to excel in all formats, Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Shami and Umesh Yadav may have to make peace with the idea of being identified as spearheads in Tests, and that their appearances in blue gear can become quite sporadic in time to come. Their competitive instincts will be on test.
And, if they show that they retain the winning edge, both in the ensuing series against Sri Lanka and in South Africa early next year, skipper Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri will have reason to be pleased with the rest-and-rotation strategy which — with due apologies to MSK Prasad and company — they appear to be joint authors of.