“We have not asked for raging turners. We will play on whatever pitch we will get.”
Two days before the first Test against New Zealand gets underway in Kanpur, Anil Kumble was very forthcoming on his viewpoint about the pitches for this series, and later. In a 13-Test long home season, it is obvious that the wickets will take a lot of the spotlight, particularly given how South Africa were given unplayable, doctored pitches last year.
In not asking for similar wickets and specifying the same (aforementioned quote) in his first press conference of the season, the Indian coach has taken a very welcome step. The four-Test series against the Proteas was a ghastly experience, for the watching/paying fans and broadcasters alike, as well as for the visitors. Tests in Mohali and Nagpur together lasted less than seven days, as the balance between bat and ball was taken to another extreme in the garb of home advantage.
It tainted then team director Ravi Shastri’s legacy a tad. There was a heated storm when India lost the T20I and ODI series to South Africa, and it was almost as if pitch curators across the country had been forced into submission. Sure, it helped India win 3-0, and easily too for that matter. But did it help them grow as a team, or as a bowling unit that now faces three stern challenges back-to-back?
Landslide victory margins can only do so much, in terms of statistics and confidence, for the nature of international cricket today is one of constant evolution. South Africa’s spin reserves were abysmal, and the Indian batsmen today face a more potent threat in Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig. Their coach Mike Hesson has talked about playing all three from the word go, and thus it could be argued that the hosts will not opt for square-turners against such an attack. How long did it take the opposition to work this out? Less than twelve months.
“We will hope that the performance we produced in the West Indies continues at home as well. We will go into the game thinking that our spinners are better,” said Kumble on Tuesday.
It puts quite some spotlight on team selection. After the washed-out fourth Test in Trinidad, Virat Kohli had said that the seven-batsmen-four-bowlers formula used in that game was keeping in mind the home series, to guard against situations wherein the team is one batsman short. Yet, at the start of that same tour, he had proclaimed the use of his best bowling resources, so as to get off to a flying start.
The skipper would want the same start to the home season as well. At the same time, he has to balance the team combination, owing to the fact that he has ample batsmen to cover all positions and to cover the obvious threat New Zealand spinners possess. As such, the underlying point is about India’s best bowling combination, and the attack leader therein. Someone who helps strike a balance between attacking intent and defensive mode. No, one isn’t talking about spin and R Ashwin here.
When the transition process had begun, back in 2012-13, it was as much about finding replacement for Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh as for Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. The Indian team is rich in batting resources once again, and Ashwin is currently in a class of his own. If there is an area where they lack still, it is in finding that cunning, wicket-taking speedster.
By default, Ishant Sharma has held that position for long now. Based on his rich experience, he is the obvious leader of the pack. The question is if he merits an automatic selection when there are three other quick bowlers in the squad. “He is someone who is consistent in what he does, attacking a particular line and length, and keeps plugging at the batsmen, putting them under pressure. He won’t pick too many wickets in many innings, and then suddenly he will get you 6-7 wickets in an innings,” Kohli had said in West Indies.
On that tour, there were many occasions when the captain expressed his displeasure at the line and length Ishant bowled, too short and wide, not making the batsmen play enough. Perhaps it was most obvious in Jamaica, as the match had slipped out of India’s grasp on day five.
But, in the first innings of that same Test, Ishant had been on fire with the new ball, and the disparity in his bowling across four days was almost a highlight reel of his career performances. You just never know which Ishant is going to turn up on the day – one who hits the mark from ball one, or the one who will struggle for sessions on end, belying the experience he carries.
At the time of writing, the Delhi speedster has been laid low due to illness and will not play in Kanpur. It reduces the load on Kohli, for he will obviously go in with Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav as the two pacers. And they will have key roles to play in their skippers’ ploy of giving short spells to his bowlers, particularly the Bengal slinger. While the latter’s bowling is still a work in progress, the spotlight during this home season will shine bright on the former.
A long injury can work to a player’s benefit in the sense that he has a lot of time to analyse his game. Shami’s return in the Caribbean offered glimpses into the positives he earned during his long layoff, vis-à-vis his fitness, and indeed he put the surprise bouncer to good effect on those flat wickets. He talked about putting extra load to test his knees during recuperation, in anticipation of the workload the long schedule will subject him to, and working up his pace with short steps in his run-up. Thirteen months away was a long time, yet he returned a bowler ready for battle, and for the long haul.
Playing at home, whether Kohli opts for two or three spinners, pace is going to be only a second option. Shami’s role as such would that be of an enforcer, mixing it up with spinners when holding one end tight, or when reverse swing comes into effect. His varied skill-set allows him to be the holding factor in different permutations – whether the leader of a five-pronged attack, or balancing the pace component in a four-bowler selection, particularly if Kohli opts for one pacer and three spinners (very much possible).
There is a real chance for Shami to grow into this role, a bowler that Kohli turns to for breakthroughs, something Ishant hasn’t been able to do despite his longevity.