India vs Bangladesh: Virat Kohli and Co's 19-Test unbeaten run is a sum of consistency and bench strength
The Indian team under Kohli has identified its core bench - a total of 18-20 players with certain backups - and over the next three-four years, they will do the job in Tests.
Karun Nair has a couple of records - one wanted, the other not so much. Scoring a Test triple hundred is something most batsmen dream about, and only a select few accomplish it. None of them wants to be dropped immediately after scoring one though.
Nair joined England's Andy Sandham (who scored 325 against West Indies in 1930) as only the second batsman not to play the following Test after reaching that milestone. The only difference, well, Sandham never played again. Nair will be hoping to avoid that fate.
"What he did was remarkable, but it only guaranteed his spot in the Test squad," said Virat Kohli ahead of the one-off Test against Bangladesh. On the face of it, his words seem cruel. Dig deeper though and the captain's prerogative regarding selection makes complete sense.
The debate about Nair's inclusion or exclusion was pivoted around the wrong player. When Kohli said, "Ajinkya Rahane has done enough to walk into the playing eleven when fit", he wasn't making stuff up. From the South Africa tour in December 2013 until the New Zealand series in 2016, no other Indian batsman has been as consistent as the vice-captain, period. A single poor series - an incomplete one, as Rahane played only three Tests against England – doesn't blot his record. There is no argument here.
Nair's exclusion was whirled around the combination of India's bowling attack - four bowlers or five. He had done enough to merit selection as the sixth batsman, but not when Kohli wanted to pick five bowlers for a flat Hyderabad wicket. In this, Nair has assumed Rohit Sharma's spot. But should the inconsistent Mumbai batsman be flustered?
Perhaps not, for Rahane's return underlines the direction this Indian team management under Kohli, and coach Anil Kumble, has taken. The guidelines are simple. After injury/recuperation, you need to prove your fitness in a domestic game and then walk back into the squad or playing eleven, according to your previous position.
Rahane did, rightly, as did Wriddhiman Saha ahead of Parthiv Patel. If Kohli wanted a third spinner for this Test, Jayant Yadav would have probably made the cut ahead of Kuldeep Yadav (or even Amit Mishra). Earlier in the season, Gautam Gambhir made way for KL Rahul in similar fashion.
The underlying point is simple. The Indian team has identified its core bench - a total of 18-20 players with certain backups – and over the next three-four years, they will do the job in the longer format. With this firm selection and rotation policy in place, they are breeding familiarity within the team with a unified focus on winning. Players come and go, the aim remains the same and the whole bunch moves forward together. Confident in their roles and status within the team, this is helping develop a certain consistency, which is the central factor for India's unbeaten streak of 19 Tests dating back to the Sri Lanka tour in 2015.
None of this is more evident than in the way India's pace bowlers have been handled over the past season or so. Since 2015, India have managed to play out between Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron, the latter out of favour at present for fitness/form issues.
Among them, only Umesh has had a consistent run from Sri Lanka to this Bangladesh Test, featuring in 14 matches. His rise over the past year or so has been nothing short of phenomenal. Away from the Test arena, Umesh disclosed to this writer how he worked on a flaw that had crept into his bowling action wherein he was pushing the ball through. It hampered the balance between pace and line-length, something he overcame during the home series against South Africa (2015), and has gone from strength to strength ever since.
At present, simply on the basis of his performances this home season, it would be fair to say that he is the spearhead of the attack. But Umesh would be the first to defy this assumption, simply because the ever-changing shape of India's bowling attack. Kohli likes to experiment with his line-ups according to the conditions and strength of opposition, and it reflects pointedly in the number of matches his pacers have played.
Shami was out injured for a bit, and when available, he is the other important link in the attack, featuring in 10 Tests since his return in the West Indies. The link-up between Umesh and Shami has pushed the other two in a bit-part role.
Ishant, meanwhile, has played a handsome role in this unbeaten run, featuring in 12 Tests. But his position has regressed a tad from the lead bowler to a third-choice option behind Shami and Umesh. It is a direct consequence of the latter's rise in performance. However, Ishant has taken this in his stride too, buying into the team's unified approach to success.
He now plays the anchor role, sometimes with the new ball or first-change otherwise, whenever Kohli wants to deploy a three-pacer attack but without Kumar. Shami, Umesh and Ishant form the first-choice on a flat deck, like Hyderabad, with Kumar only stepping in due to Shami's unavailability. And yet, the swing bowler didn't disappoint in how he performed against Bangladesh.
Kumar played only one Test in 2015, and since his return from injury, has seen frugal use of his ability. But he has been deployed with devastating effect in optimal conditions such as that in St Lucia (against West Indies) and Kolkata (against New Zealand). This judicious use has helped manage his workload, and in turn, he has worked on his fitness, notching up his pace a bit higher. It could be seen in how he was able to work reverse swing in Hyderabad against Bangladesh, away from his conventional movement of the ball.
"It is a good thing to have good fast bowlers in the team, especially in Test cricket. if you can have three-four pacers in your squad who are attacking bowlers and can pick you wickets at any stage during the day, then it is a bonus for any side. If you see the last series (against England), the contribution of the fast bowlers I thought stood out. There was so much focus on the spinners, but I thought they stood out as the difference between the two sides to be really honest. They are the real match-winners, because you need to pick 20 wickets to win Tests," said Kohli.
It poses a problem of plenty for the Indian skipper, one that he is now increasingly familiar with, throughout the length of his squad. Kohli has a choice of two-three players for every spot in the playing eleven. And that is an enviable position for any captain to be in, especially for one looking to extend this unbeaten run of 19 Tests against Australia.
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