The series opener at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua will be India’s first Test match outside the sub-continent in more than 18 months, with the New Year’s Test in Sydney in 2015 being their last. Statistically speaking, India have yet to lose a Test since the beginning of 2015: they have played nine Tests, winning five, drawing three and losing just one. Virat Kohli has been the captain of the Indian Test side during the aforementioned period, and so, boasts of a good captaincy record, albeit these are still early days in his tenure as India’s Test captain. Ahead of India’s Test series against the West Indies, we can say that Kohli has a great chance to lead India to a third successive Test series victory, having beaten Srilanka (away) and South Africa (home) in their previous two assignments.
Now, whenever India play in an overseas Test series, outside the sub-continent, the topic of India’s playing combination invariably pops up and is something Kohli and the new Indian Cricket Team coach, Anil Kumble, have to deal with until they unearth a genuine all-rounder. The pitches in the Caribbean have gotten slower over the years and the touring Indians are unlikely to find them to be much different from what they get at home. In addition, the absence of Jerome Taylor through retirement is a body blow for Jason Holder and co., who have to show that they can deal with the absence of an important cog in their Test side. So, one of the aspects I am looking forward to before the start of West Indies v India 2016 is how the hosts cope with Taylor’s absence.
The scenario we are witnessing is quite a strange one, with Kohli’s men starting as the favourites to win an overseas Test series, even though a ball hasn’t yet been bowled. Despite being the better team on paper, India will have to get their playing combination and the balance of their playing XI right. So, let us analyse the options Kohli and Kumble have at their disposal and the possible combination – out of 5-1-5, 6-1-4, 5-1-1-4 – they could go in with for the Antigua Test.
India’s Playing Combination (Playing XI) for Antigua Test
Kohli and Kumble, before they pick India’s playing XI, have to assess their team’s strengths and weaknesses and also the department they want to strengthen. The reason why all-rounders are coveted is because they lend balance to the side – which a pure batsman or bowler will not be able to. However, unlike in Twenty20 (T20) cricket, in which a captain can load his side with bits-and-pieces cricketers because the game is a very brief one and subsequently the approach is also very different, you ought to prioritise picking specialists in your Test playing XI. We can even go to the extent of saying that specialists are your match-winners in Test cricket, as much as all-rounders and bits-and-pieces cricketers are in T20 cricket.
India’s 17-man squad for the Test series against the West Indies, has seven batsmen, seven bowlers, two all-rounders (considering Ravindra Jadeja and Stuart Binny as players who can contribute with bat and ball), and a wicketkeeper. Kohli, ever since he assumed India’s Test captaincy, has made his preference for playing five specialist bowlers clear. He will and should probably be aware that India’s batting, which remains their forte, might well be weakened if he goes in with a five-man bowling attack.
I am absolutely sure that Kohli will be mindful of India’s defeat to Srilanka in Galle, in August 2015. They lost a Test match which was within their grasp right from the first morning. The hosts were bowled out for 183 in their first innings and India, in reply, posted 375, taking a whopping 192-run first innings lead. The fact that, from such a position of strength, they went on to lose the Test was simply staggering. We must recognise Dinesh Chandimal’s batting effort in his side’s second innings, with his counter-attacking 162 (169) leaving the Indians aghast and providing the Srilankan bowlers with a fighting total (176) to defend. The India of old, which was famous for its second innings collapses, had turned up on the nation’s Independence Day, as they capitulated for 112 in their second innings and went on to the lose the Test by 63 runs. The Galle pitch assisted the spinners in the two sides – Amit Mishra, Harbhajan Singh, Ravichandran Ashwin, Rangana Herath, and Tharindu Kaushal – throughout the Test match, but India should not have lost a game in which they were so far ahead.
The reason I have provided this small review of India’s defeat in Galle is because they played with a 5-1-5 combination which weakened their batting quite immensely. Beyond Ajinkya Rahane, who batted at No. 5, the Indian lower middle-order and tail could not even occupy the crease in the second innings. Wriddhiman Saha has yet to prove his batting credentials at the international level and his lack of contributions with the bat is a worry for India. The Bengal wicket-keeper’s ineptitude to exude solidity with the bat is also another reason why India’s playing combination cannot feature five batsmen, the wicket-keeper and five bowlers (5-1-5).
In addition to Saha, R Jadeja is another player who has let himself and his team down with the bat on numerous occasions. For someone who averages almost 45 with the bat in 64 first-class matches, a Test batting average of 21.5 is aberration in the extreme. In 24 Test innings, R Jadeja has managed just one half-century and been dismissed for less than 20 runs on 12 occasions. R Jadeja’s Test batting stats substantiate his unreliability with the bat and therefore, I will not be putting my money on his batting, if I was Kohli. But, R Jadeja is a lethal left-arm spinner, who has thrived in dry, spinner-friendly conditions. Putting myself in Kohli and Kumble’s shoes, I will pick Jadeja for his bowling and consider the runs he accrues with the bat as a bonus.
Now, Binny is the other player in the Indian squad who can contribute with bat and ball. But, the question is whether Kohli and Kumble want someone who can bat well and chip in with a few overs, or bowl well and provide a wicket-taking threat. If they opt for the former, then Binny is a lot more congruous to that sort of a role than Jadeja, who is a better bowler than Binny and will also suit the pervasive conditions in the Caribbean, where the pitches are expected to be dry and consequently, not be conducive to swing and seam bowling. Jadeja has impressed with the bat in India’s second warm-up match against the WICB President’s XI, with a quick-fire half-century (a 61-ball 56). We must wait and see if his performance with the bat seals his place in India’s playing XI for the first Test of West Indies v India 2016.
Another facet which has to be taken into account is the number of spinners, Kohli and Kumble want to field in Antigua. In the home Test series against South Africa, Mishra, Ashwin and R Jadeja played together in two of the four Tests, with the Haryana leg-spinner having to make way for one or the other incoming fast-medium bowler in Bengaluru and Delhi. But, in the upcoming Tests against the West Indies, the nature of the playing surfaces, and not the personnel, will determine whether Mishra plays as the third spinner in the side. In case the pitches have a bit of grass covering, which is unlikely, then India’s playing combination will be five batsmen, an all-rounder, a wicket-keeper, and four bowlers (three fast-medium bowlers and one spinner), making it 5-1-1-4.
6-1-4 could also be India’s playing combination for the first Test, with the possibility of Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma featuring together in India’s playing XI. R Jadeja will be considered as a pure bowler in that case, alongside Ashwin and two fast-medium bowlers, unless Kohli pulls a rabbit out of the hat and goes in with three spinners and a fast-medium bowler. But, 5-1-1-4 is the most likely playing combination India will go into the Antigua Test with. Kohli knows that good Test sides must have the wherewithal to pick 20 wickets and the best chance to do so is with a good, well-rounded bowling attack. Leaving Pujara or Rohit out will mean that India’s batting becomes slightly weakened, but the Indian team management will hope the likes of Saha, Jadeja and Ashwin can weigh in with crucial runs lower down the order.