Virat Kohli likes to talk. Ask him a question, and he will speak eloquently about his thought process in making any particular decision. He is quite direct in his answers; a frank departure from the circles MS Dhoni would wind the media in during his captaincy.
So, when at toss in Kolkata, Kohli was asked about his team composition for the first Test against Sri Lanka, he gave an equally honest answer. “We have three fast bowlers and two all-rounders in R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja,” he had said.
The significance of his words couldn’t be lost. Yes, it cannot be denied that Ashwin and Jadeja aren’t just spinners in the quintessential definition of the word. Over the past season alone, their contributions with the bat had bailed India out on many occasions. Stand out among them are Ashwin’s hundred in St. Lucia against West Indies, and Jadeja’s ninety-odd in Mohali against England.
Yet, there is an underlining impact of Kohli’s reference to them as all-rounders and not just spinners. It is in pointing to the long overseas schedule that is getting ever closer on the horizon. There is certain anticipation, excitement even, about it among fans, media and even the players alike, for this Indian Test team has proven to be a class apart on familiar pitches. Now, everybody wants to see them match up to South Africa, England and Australia.
The final day’s play in Kolkata proved that Team India isn’t underestimating Sri Lanka in the current series. Still, there is an undercurrent of preparation for forthcoming sterner examinations in everything they have done, or are intending to do in the next two Tests in Nagpur and Delhi.
Yes, the pitch at Eden Gardens is quite quick, but this was additionally green even by that standard. Furthermore, there are confirmed reports emanating now that the team management has asked for firmer, bouncier and even greener wickets for both the second and third Tests.
“It is obviously clear that we're preparing for the next two years. We're going to travel abroad and play overseas, and we're going to find wickets like this and it is going to be challenging for all of us,” KL Rahul had said in the post-match conference in Kolkata.
It was the first time that an Indian team member had openly acknowledged this preparatory mode. Until then, all the talk was about the ‘desire to win’, ‘playing consistent cricket on different pitches’ and ‘taking one match at a time’. Rahul’s words put into sharper focus what Kohli said about Ashwin and Jadeja. It also provides perspective into why India played with a batsman short on a rank green-top.
Last year, on a similarly bowler-friendly wicket against New Zealand in Kolkata, Rohit Sharma played as the no.6 batsman. They have done so in the past as well, bringing him in whenever the wicket seems to favour bowlers. With Hardik Pandya rested, it made perfect sense to field an extra batsman once again, one who hasn’t played Test cricket since last autumn. Yet, it didn’t transpire and the selection in Kolkata is thus representative of the shift in mind-set of the team management.
Five bowlers with an all-rounder at No 6 is now the standard formula for India in Test cricket, particularly keeping in mind the long overseas schedule ahead.
It is also in keeping with the maiden call-up given to Vijay Shankar as Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been released from the squad for the next two Tests. While the average cricket fan would Google search his name, the all-rounder has been on the selectors’ radar for quite some time now.
As early as the Sri Lanka tour in July-August, chief selector MSK Prasad had confirmed to this writer that "Shankar was also in consideration for that tour and had marginally missed out."
It made sense, for Pandya was already a shoe-in as an all-rounder and conditions in Sri Lanka warranted playing two spinners in the eleven. What will happen in Cape Town though? Will India play two spinners then, or will the choice come down to picking one of Ashwin or Jadeja?
While there is considerable time in figuring out the selective answer to that question, currently the Indian think-tank is busy dealing with the other possible permutations. And all of them have to deal with whether Ashwin-Jadeja can find a spot in the same eleven. If they do, it is only beneficial for the team keeping in mind how pitches in South Africa are expected to play out — swing/seam at first, batting strips over the second and third days, whilst assisting spinners on the final two days as cracks open up.
In the last overseas cycle in 2013-14, MS Dhoni played with only one spinner. He began with Ashwin in South Africa, and moved to Jadeja thereafter. That year, this spin duo played together in only two Tests in England — at Southampton and Manchester — and nowhere else (Jadeja missed the Australia tour due to injury). Back then, Dhoni had moved to the No 6 role. Yet, Wriddhiman Saha hasn’t been groomed to do the same.
Ashwin’s ability to bat at No 6 found considerable success in the West Indies last year. Overall, batting at this spot, he averages 38.92 in comparison to his career average of 31.96. Cynics will argue that most of those runs have come against the West Indies. But they will do well to have a re-look at the St. Lucia pitch, wherein Ashwin scored his most impressive Test hundred on a bowler-friendly wicket.
If Ashwin is indeed assigned that no.6 role, the team management is then able to field two spinners in the same playing eleven, a feat they would otherwise not be able to accomplish. But, will he be preferred over Pandya, who is the flavour of the current season in Indian cricket? Now, that is a debate for another time.