Maybe, just maybe, the Indian Test captain Virat Kohli and new coach Anil Kumble know what they are doing.
Kohli and Kumble set more than a few heads to scratching with their selection for the third Test against the West Indies, at the Darren Sammy National Cricket Stadium in St Lucia. There was no room for a fully fit Murali Vijay, Rohit Sharma replaced Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja was roped in as the second spinner in place of Amit Mishra and Bhuvneshwar Kumar came in for Umesh Yadav – seemingly dropped for his wayward spell with the second new ball in the second Test.
Kohli said the inclusion of Rohit was because of his potential to score quick runs, but it meant more changes still, because Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane both had to move up a spot in the batting order to the number three and number four spot respectively. When India’s top order folded on a pitch that had plenty in it for the fast bowlers, with Rohit making just nine and Kohli three, that sense was reinforced.
“Questionable selections” was how ESPNcricinfo described it in their report of day one, before going on to say that “India might have misread the pitch or underestimated the attack: the situation asked for the patience of Vijay and Pujara.”
Bhuvneshwar Kumar then failed to take a wicket with the new ball when West Indies batted and it looked like India had missed another trick as West Indies moved to 107 for 1 and then 202 for 3. On a pitch with bounce, the quicker Umesh might have been the better bet.
Test cricket is replete with twisting storylines, however, and all three men would go on to play their part in changing this one and crafting a historic win for India. Kumar took his first Test five-for wicket haul in two years, Jadeja chipped in with crucial wickets and some quick runs, while Rohit gave India’s second innings the momentum it needed at a vital time.
Kumar began the process with the second new ball on day four by providing a swing-bowling clinic as West Indies lost their last seven wickets for 23 runs. Kumar took 5 for 16 from 11.4 overs, after going wicket less in his first 12 overs. He was so accurate that Kohli did not need a fielder behind square on the leg side, despite the movement Kumar was getting.
He swung the ball both ways, winnowing out Jermain Blackwood with a series of outswingers before bamboozling Marlon Samuels with a big inswinger. All thoughts of Umesh disappeared as Bhuvneshwar sliced through a fragile West Indies batting line-up. Jadeja popped up on stage too, taking the big wicket of Royston Chase, the man who had denied India victory in the second Test.
Suddenly India had a handy lead of 128, but any thoughts of winning the game depended on being able to score quick runs on a ground where the run-rate had been an anaemic 2.48 to that point. Enter Rohit. India were 72 for 3 when he walked in and he and Rahane survived a testing initial phase where they scored just 16 from nine overs, with Rohit limping to seven from 25 deliveries. Then the floodgates opened and Rohit scored his next 34 runs from 32 deliveries. By day’s end, with Rohit unbeaten on 41 and Rahane on 51, the lead had swelled to 285. India had a sniff.
Rohit was unluckily given out lbw off an inside edge the next morning but Rahane pushed on and Jadeja boosted the scoring along with 16 from 13 balls. West Indies were set a target of 346 while India had 87 overs to take 10 wickets. They would need just a little more than half that - 47.3 of them to be precise. This time Bhuvneshwar picked up an early wicket, trapping Kraig Brathwaite leg-before in the fourth over while Jadeja took two late ones, including the victory clinching final wicket of Shannon Gabriel. It was a fitting end to the game.
Kohli has been clear about his desire to harness pace and leg-spin in the quest of victory but these changes show he isn’t wedded to any one approach. Flexibility is a quality he wants his team to possess.
"Usually if you see very few people like change," he said, according to an article in ESPNCricinfo. "This team doesn't think how others would react or what they might say. We put out a combination that's best according to the pitch. When I came at number three many people asked why I did it. But I am not fixated by my batting spot. If the team needs, I can open the batting too because that's the rule applicable to everyone in the team,"
"Bhuvi gave us the results, gave us breakthroughs with the second new ball. If you make three changes you might feel that it might to be too strong a reaction. But we realised that if we have to seal the series here then we had to make changes according to the conditions. We will not wait for another match because you never know if you play one or two bad sessions the series could be levelled. Our idea was that we have to seal the series here," Kohli said.
India did seal the series and all the changes worked. That won’t always be the case, of course. Changes can backfire too. But India under Kohli have signalled once again that winning is what matters and that every player in the squad needs to be prepared to sacrifice individual preferences and aspirations for the larger cause.
By emphasising this, Kohli is attempting to chart a new course in Indian cricket, where the individual has often towered over the collective. This win is just another step in that direction and if he eventually succeeds, he will leave Indian cricket stronger than how he found it.