Roll back to the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle last year. On a rank turner, India went in with three spinners, one more than they needed. With R Ashwin and Amit Mishra leading the attack, Harbhajan Singh was relegated to the third spinner's role. He only bowled eight overs in the first innings and 17 in the second. In the second essay, he was particularly ineffective, as Dinesh Chandimal cut loose and released the pressure.
From a perilous 95 for five, Chandimal's hundred (aided by a couple of umpiring errors) rescued Sri Lanka. Suddenly, India were chasing 176 on a pitch turning square, with just five full-time batsmen, India collapsed to 112 all-out.
Virat Kohli has never forgotten that Test. It was different from the disappointment he suffered in Adelaide in 2014, when he first led India and almost took them to the cusp of a famous win with a superhuman batting effort. In Adelaide, it was Kohli pulling the team along with him, more as a batsman than captain, for he was still only an apprentice then. In Galle, Kohli wasn't the stand-in skipper anymore; he now enjoyed more influence and could alter the future direction of Indian cricket.
Five bowlers overseas has become a norm for India post Galle — albeit with an extra pacer or seaming all-rounder, not an extra spinner. For the remainder of the Sri Lanka tour, he drafted in Stuart Binny. Even at home, in mildly seaming conditions in Bangalore for a Test against South Africa, he picked Binny in the playing XI. For the Tests in the West Indies earlier this year, Kohli went with three full-time pacers and two spinners, but Ashwin's success with the bat at No 6 made it possible.
"We want to start the series with our best bowling combination," Kohli had said ahead of the West Indies tour. Five bowlers suited that approach.
Surprisingly enough, for the fourth Test in Trinidad, India selected a seven batsmen line-up with Ashwin the lone spinner. "We wanted to check out this combination, as during the long home season, we don't think we will be needing a fifth bowler," the captain had said there.
Against England in Rajkot, he went back to five bowlers. What prompted this shift in goalposts? Was it a ploy to play their best possible bowling combination against a deep batting line-up? Or was it the pitch? "Yes, the pitch (as well)," Kohli replied, when asked this question in the post-match press conference. "I was surprised to see that much grass on it. It shouldn't have been the case."
"Secondly," he added, "Ashwin has been batting really well. So has Wriddhiman Saha, and we backed Jadeja to do well on his home ground. It gave us the opportunity to play Mishra, so we had all our bases covered."
Given how the Test played out, however, it can now be ascertained that India got their team selection wrong. Mishra bowled only 23.3 overs in the first innings out of 159.3, as compared to Ashwin's 46 and Jadeja's 30. Moreover, he conceded runs at 4.17 per over, as opposed to 3.63 and 2.86 for the latter two.
In the second innings too, Mishra (4.61 in 13 overs) proved to be expensive as compared to Ashwin (2.68 in 23.3 overs) and Jadeja (3.13 in 15 overs). Moreover, Kohli had held Jadeja back and gave a lengthy spell to the leg-spinner instead. It was a doubtful ploy, given that the rough on this flat wicket was on and outside the leg stump, sufficient only to be exploited by the left-arm spinner.
For all his poor showing, Mishra can be compared with Adil Rashid, who picked up seven wickets in the match. His economy is only slightly better than Mishra, showcasing how tough it is for leg-spinners to control runs on a flat track.
However, there is a big difference. Rashid was used in a more enhanced, attacking role by Alastair Cook, so it is easy to see his expensive return. Mishra was the holding bowler for India, and he failed in that endeavour. Could Jayant Yadav have done a better job?
Moreover, it also begs the question that if India sacrificed a proper batsman to gain advantage, they did not ultimately accrue. Kohli picked five bowlers because he wanted to have a shot at the deep English batting line-up. It makes sense, but did he fail to hedge enough against the six-pronged attack that England possesses? Could Karun Nair have provided additional back-up, seeing how India’s five-bowler theory backfired spectacularly?
"Even with five batsmen, we were close to getting 500 runs in the first innings and batted out the second innings as well. Again, that gives us belief as a batting unit, and going ahead we can still play an extra bowler and continue putting pressure on the opposition," Kohli said.
Sure, it's easy to point out that the series is still 0-0. And yet, it is also a fact that England came within four wickets of a stunning victory. For a team that collapsed in one session in Dhaka two weeks ago, subsequently coming into this series as underdogs, that draw was more than a simple uplifting performance.
At this juncture, Ben Stokes' hundred needs to be marvelled at. The all-rounder provides his team that significant balance Indian cricket desperately craves for. Ashwin can only be seen as a likening to Moeen Ali, while a genuine seam-bowling all-rounder has been forever missing.
MS Dhoni went through his years as Test skipper pining for such a player, especially in overseas conditions. Kohli too has started longing for the same, albeit even in home conditions, given his higher propensity to go with five bowlers. Could Hardik Pandya be the answer, then?