V Ramesh Kumar holds a Master’s degree in psychology. He runs his own textile business, has a cricket academy and is in charge of the Chepauk pitch laid out for the first Test between India and England starting on Friday. The surface has some grass to start with and a Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) official exuded confidence that it would play pretty well, with “spinners coming into the game” as the match progresses.
Test cricket is returning to India after almost a year-and-a-half, but the Indian team has become truly an all-weather (read, conditions) side. A historic series triumph in Australia further attested the team’s progression. The scenario ahead of the first Test against England, though, is a little different to what it was Down Under. Last month, when India played in Brisbane, their resources were down to the bare bones due to a string of injuries. Now, with Virat Kohli back from paternity leave and fit-again first-choice players raring to go again, India have an embarrassment of riches. Picking the right combination becomes a happy headache, as Kohli speaks about variety and depth.
🗣️ “Rishabh Pant will take the gloves tomorrow.”#TeamIndia skipper @imVkohli on @rishabhpant17‘s impact in the recently concluded Australia series and taking care of wicketkeeping duties in the first @Paytm #INDvENG Test at Chepauk. pic.twitter.com/bbY9hhsb6O
Return of the heavy artillery
In Brisbane, India were forced to go with five bowlers with a cumulative experience of just four Tests. Now both pace and spin spearheads are back – Jasprit Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin. Ishant Sharma, if he is picked for the series-opener, will be playing his 98th Test. And in the absence of the injured Ravindra Jadeja, left-arm spinner Axar Patel has been included – a relatively old hand in white-ball internationals, although yet to play Test cricket.
At the pre-match press conference, Kohli confirmed that Rishabh Pant would retain the gloves. It’s a minor departure from the usual practice, for until the last home series, Wriddhiman Saha had been the team’s first-choice wicketkeeper, while Pant was preferred away from home because of his superior batting. Pant’s rise as a batsman in Australia has given him the home advantage as well. The batting unit picks itself, so it’s basically down to bowling combination where “variety and depth” are expected.
Bowlers who can bat
Usually, India announce their Playing XI on the eve of a Test. But on Thursday, they preferred to keep their cards close. Being spoilt for choice could be a reason. Kohli spoke about having bowlers who can bat. “Bowling combination; we will try to give it as many options as possible, along with the guys who have the ability to contribute with the bat.”
This brings Patel into the equation, as also Shardul Thakur. “The reason (to pick Axar) was basically to have someone very similar to Jadeja in terms of skill-set, which Axar brings in all three departments,” Kohli said. The 27-year-old, whose left-arm spin thrives on accuracy, is a capable lower-order batsman, with a century to his credit in first-class cricket. The Brisbane Test served a fresh reminder about the benefit of batting deep, as a 123-run seventh-wicket partnership between Washington Sundar and Thakur in the first innings turned the game on its head. Irrespective of conditions, playing five specialist bowlers has been a policy for this Indian team, but whether to go with three spinners or two could be a tricky decision.
Watch the full video 🎥👉 https://t.co/fp19jq1ZTI pic.twitter.com/wWLAhZcdZk
Left is right
Kohli’s assessment of the pitch was about “a normal Chepauk pitch, quite a nice batting track, with spinners getting assistance eventually in the game”. Sundar, despite his Gabba heroics, might have to sit out, for the youngster is Ashwin’s understudy at the moment. So, the team management will have to choose between Axar and Kuldeep Yadav if two spinners are picked. The former offers a wholesome package – tight bowling, lower-order batting and top-class fielding. Also, England, save Joe Root, didn’t look particularly comfortable against Lasith Embuldeniya’s left-arm orthodox spin in Sri Lanka. The latter returned with 15 wickets from two Tests and created problems, especially bowling with the hard, new ball. Like Embuldeniya, Axar too is comfortable operating with the new ball.
Kuldeep’s unorthodox style, on the other hand, offers variety. The chinaman bowler hasn’t played in the longest format for more than two years, but given that the majority of England batsmen play spinners off the surface and their over-reliance on the sweep shot, Kuldeep can create enough doubts on a turner. “Kuldeep will be in the scheme of things. He is fitter. His bowling is much improved,” his skipper observed.
Playing just two pacemen could be fraught with risks. If one bowler breaks down during the match, the department becomes lightweight. Two years ago, against South Africa in Ranchi, however, India went ahead with three spinners and two pacers and wrapped up the Test inside four days. It would be interesting to see if the team management sticks to that formula against England in Chennai as well.
Bumrah walks in as the team’s first-choice pacer. Ishant is the most experienced of them all. Mohammed Siraj was India’s highest wicket-taker in the Test series Down Under. Thakur, apart from his bowling mettle, is fresh from a half-century at the Gabbatoir. Hardik Pandya’s inability to bowl in the longest format at the moment weakens his case, still the team management has a happy problem to live with.
Nine years ago, Root made his Test debut in India during a series-winning campaign. That was the last time India lost a home rubber. On Friday, the England captain will play his 100th Test, coming here on the heels of his 228 and 186 in Sri Lanka. Zak Crawley’s “jarred right wrist”, an injury sustained when the top-order batsman slipped on the marble floor on Tuesday, has created a No. 3 void in the England batting line-up. Root remained coy over whether he would promote himself up the order or it would be Ben Stokes or someone else.
He, however, dropped a hint that Moeen Ali’s proven batting ability, apart from his off-spin, might help him edge Dom Bess as the team’s second spinner for the game. In a marquee series between two heavyweights, depth has become important.
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