Picking the playing XI for a Test match can either be straightforward or a little tricky. If the team is settled and most players pick themselves, it’s just about putting those names on paper before the captain signing the sheet at the bottom. But if you are looking for answers to certain questions, it can test your judgment and resolve. What comes first — the combination you want to play, or the personnel you deem will fit the bill? Should pedigree be the only yardstick, or current form can override the historical references? Considering India’s tremendous run in the last 24 months, the selection of the playing XI should’ve been easy, but it was anything but that for the Test match in Cape Town.
India chose to play only five batsmen with Hardik Pandya given a place in the XI. And that wasn’t the only tough decision that the team management took, for they chose Shikhar Dhawan over KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma over Ajinkya Rahane with both Rahul and Rahane having better away records than the ones chosen to play. In addition, India handed the debut to Jasprit Bumrah, which meant that the fast bowling star of the long Indian home season — Umesh Yadav — warmed the bench. One would assume that these brave and unpopular decisions were taken on the basis of sound judgment and clarity of thought. A heartbreaking loss in the first Test will lead to these decisions being judged and discussed threadbare. It’ll also test team management’s judgment and clarity of thought going forward.
So, how do you finalise the playing XI for the second Test? Should you use the first Test as the starting point or simply consider the second Test a brand new entity? The reason to bring up this question is to figure out what comes first — team composition based on the pitch with regards to how many batsmen-fast bowler-spinners should feature in the XI, or is it about who can’t be dropped because of the way he performed in the last outing.
Pandya’s performance has given India this sweet headache, for leaving him out would invite wrath of the supporters and experts — he was the highest scorer of the game from both sides — but playing him might mean compromising with the team combination that you might think is ideal for the pitch in Centurion, and what’s best suited for the team after the twin batting failure.
In my humble opinion, it should always be about the team combination first, for the pitch offered for the match dictates that. If the pitch is anywhere close to the one in Cape Town (there’s enough reasons to be believe that Centurion is very similar to Cape Town, if not a little more lively), it’s only pragmatic to play six proper batsmen. On a pitch offering loads to the bowlers, you must bolster the batting like you must bolster the bowling department on a flat pitch. If you think that you’d need only four bowlers to take 20 wickets, playing an extra bowling option at the cost of a proper Test batsman isn’t recommended. Especially when your batting has failed twice.
Let me raise another question before you shred me to threads for the suggestion to drop Pandya. If the same team can drop Karun Nair in the very next match after he scored the triple century (only the second Indian to do so) for the sake of playing the right combination, why is it preposterous to suggest that Pandya can be left out too for the same reason? Back then, India felt the need for the fifth bowler on a flat Hyderabad pitch against Bangladesh and Karun was told to sit out. Keeping the spirit of the same logic, if the pitch at Centurion demands only four bowlers, team shouldn’t hesitate to leave Pandya out. If this team can leave out its vice-captain after only one poor series in his career, it surely knows how to take the unpopular calls.
That brings me to the second unpopular question to ponder — the spot occupied by Dhawan at the top. While he’s scored a lot of runs in all three formats since the Champions Trophy, the jury is out on his ability to play overseas. The modes of his dismissals in the first Test have, once gain, opened the Pandora’s box. Since it’s widely believed that Rahul is better equipped to handle pace, bounce and lateral movement in the air and off the surface, does he merit a place in the XI for the second Test? It’s important to remember that any corrective measures taken after the second Test might have no bearing on the outcome of this series. It’s human to err and if the team management feels that they erred in judgment with regards to Dhawan for the first Test, they can surely make amends in the second without thinking about how the decision will look to the outsiders.
There are no right or wrong answers to address the selection conundrum and it’s almost certain that irrespective of the path the team takes, it will be criticised. But that must not stop them from doing what they think is right, even if it means taking a few more unpopular and brave decisions in the second Test too.