Tough home season coming up, but Team India galloping on Virat Kohli's 'horses for courses' policy
This is the new direction for Virat Kohli and his side in Test cricket. Any batsman can be asked to vacate his comfort zone, and any bowler can be left out as per the demands of the conditions and opposition.
India vs West Indies, first Test, Antigua: India pick five specialist bowlers, a deviation from the last Test against South Africa, when they went with seven batsmen in the playing XI at Delhi. Surprisingly, Amit Mishra made the cut ahead of Ravindra Jadeja.
India vs West Indies, second Test, Jamaica: Murali Vijay injures his thumb and KL Rahul is included in his place.
India vs West Indies, third Test, St Lucia: India make three changes: Bhuvneshwar Kumar replaces Umesh Yadav, Jadeja returns in place of Mishra. And, most surprisingly, Rohit Sharma is picked ahead of both Cheteshwar Pujara and a fit-again Vijay.
India vs West Indies, fourth Test, Trinidad: Needing to win the match to maintain their No 1 ranking, Indian skipper Virat Kohli pulls out yet another surprise, choosing seven batsmen and only four bowlers. Vijay and Pujara are both included, as is Rohit, while Jadeja sits out.
Sure, Mishra hadn't bowled well in Jamaica, so Jadeja was a shoe-in for the third Test. Picking Bhuvaneshwar and dropping Yadav was the captain's prerogative on his reading of the conditions. But to pick Rohit ahead of Pujara and Vijay? Surely, three changes seemed a bit of an over-reaction to the drawn second Test.
But if you thought these changes didn't make sense, try explaining the team selection decisions for the fourth Test! Seven batsmen and four bowlers with the No 1 ranking on the line? "We wanted to try out this combination keeping in mind the loss in Galle (Sri Lanka last year), when we were a batsman short. At home we won't need five bowlers," said Kohli, after the fourth Test was rained out.
On the face of it then, a plethora of changes seemed like a purposeful tactic from the team management. They came to the Caribbean with a motive — shed the rust from nine months of limited-overs action and get into the groove for a long season of Test cricket. There were a few apparent cracks to ponder over, and a squad of 17 to choose from. Kohli went for the jugular and tried as many permutations as possible in four playing combinations.
The poor oppisition in West Indies helped, of course, and India won the series 2-0, never even touching fourth gear.
Dig deeper though, and a particular pattern emerges. In Sri Lanka last year, he started off with five bowlers in Galle. But the lightweight middle-order batting meant that he brought in Stuart Binny for the second Test in Colombo, and then retained the combination for the third Test (also in Colombo).
Later, in the South Africa series, he again started off with five bowlers in Mohali, before changing it to four bowlers plus Binny for Bangalore, and then using four bowlers in Nagpur and Delhi.
By his own admission, the Indian skipper likes to start a Test series with his best bowling options. This is a lesson he got in Adelaide (Australia 2014-15), when he led for the first time and India lost by a close margin. He put that experience to use against Sri Lanka but lost. He persisted with it against both South Africa and West Indies, and won.
This has been falsely deemed as aggression; it's actually just Kohli not being a reactive captain. It is the absorption of learning into his personal game, whether as batsman or leader. There is a proper method to this changing-and-chopping madness. And the best illustration of this is in the manner he reacts to wins or losses in each contest.
After Galle, he brought Binny in for extra cushion to the batting order. Against both South Africa and West Indies, he measured the opposition and judged their strengths/weaknesses to perfection. Any changes made as and when these latter two series progressed turned out to be based on proper reasoning and calculation.
Of course, it has led to some strange calls at times. Karn Sharma chosen over R Ashwin in Adelaide, Suresh Raina over Pujara in Sydney, experimenting with Rohit at No 3, shuffling Rahane up the order when it didn't work, putting Pujara on a short leash, again re-initiating the Rohit experiment, and shuffling both himself and Rahane up the order. In between, he also backed the re-selection of Harbhajan Singh to the Test side, although he sparingly in Sri Lanka.
"Very few people like change," Kohli said, with almost a smirk, as he was asked to explain the team selection in St Lucia. "If we play with just one combination, then world class sides are going to plan against us and capitalise on the chances we give them. We need to be flexible."
And this flexibility has shown up in statistics as well. Kohli has led India in 14 Tests, and only he and Rahane have featured in all of them. Wriddhiman Saha and Ashwin are joint second with 13 appearances. Only Ishant Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit and Vijay have managed ten or plus matches in this interim. All in all, 21 players have been deployed in these 14 Tests.
Perhaps it started out as a learning phase, but has incidentally kicked on as habitual strategy on part of the Indian skipper. He is in a thankless job, one where the curve is sharp, and he has little time to quickly grow into this role. The fact that he is now making these changes at a regular pace, and that the players are in acknowledgement, says that this is the new direction for Kohli and his side in Test cricket. Any batsman can be asked to vacate his comfort zone, and any bowler can be left out as per the demands of the conditions and opposition.
As regards the West Indies’ tour then, Ashwin is a pertinent marker of this new tactic. While he had always wanted to come higher up in the order, he wasn't informed until the Antigua Test that he would be batting at No 6. Not only has his success — with both bat and ball — allowed Saha some degree of comfort at No 7, it has also given Kohli the optimal balance sought between a shortened batting order and playing a five-bowler attack.
It was similarly the case in Sri Lanka, when Rahane moved to No 3 without much fuss. While he failed in the first innings at the P Sara Oval, he went on to work harder in the nets and tightened his game for that makeshift spot, smacking a hundred in the second innings.
The underlying point here is that players have risen to this challenge and adapted their game to the unforeseen selection demands of their skipper. In preparation to a long-haul Test season, the Indian team has readily assimilated this unforeseen style of chopping and changing, and learnt to play "the Virat Kohli way".
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