India captain Virat Kohli dismissed the idea of playing an extra batsman. “I don’t believe in that balance. I have never believed in that balance.” A combination of six specialist batsmen, a bowling all-rounder, and four bowlers has been India’s recipe for success over the past couple of seasons. The India captain saw no reason to change it even after an innings defeat at Headingley.
The template for the first three Tests in the ongoing series had been four fast bowlers and Ravindra Jadeja as a spin-allrounder. Given the skipper’s reluctance to change it, maybe a change of personnel would be beneficial. On the face of it, Ravichandran Ashwin and Shardul Thakur for Jadeja and Ishant Sharma could make the team better-balanced without rejigging the template.
In fact, there’s a paradox. Although Jadeja was the specialist all-rounder in the XI, India effectively played the first three Tests with seven specialist batsmen. Conditions restricted the left-arm spinner’s bowling minutes at Trent Bridge and Lord’s. And despite him sending down 32 overs and taking two wickets at Headingley, Jadeja hardly made much impact in a game even though he was expected to be a lot more effective.
On the other hand, the left-hander is the fourth-highest scorer (133 runs) in the team at the moment ahead of Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, and Rishabh Pant. Jadeja’s contributions, however, have been restricted to important cameos and a couple of crucial partnerships. Over the last two years, his batting improvement has been immense but at No. 7, he is no Ravi Shastri and maybe only marginally better than Ashwin. And as Kohli said at the post-match press conference on Saturday, sometimes you need to look beyond the numbers.
The Southampton Test in 2018 was one of the lows in Ashwin’s career. On a turning pitch, England’s Moeen Ali outperformed him with a nine-wicket match haul compared to the Indian offie’s three. But over the subsequent three years, Ashwin’s bowling has become even more well-rounded, with added variety. The pink-ball Test in Adelaide in December last year was a case in point, wherein seamer-friendly conditions, he spun a web around Steve Smith and company, eventually returning with four wickets in the first innings.
In the World Test Championship (WTC) final also, he partially opened the game for India on the final day, just that he didn’t have enough runs to bowl within the fourth innings. Shardul will definitely be in and Ishant will be dropped. Jadeja after going through scans, it is more or less sure that Ashwin will be in the playing 11. The fourth Test will be played at The Oval from September 2. It’s a venue that traditionally has the flattest pitches in England.
It briefly became Ashwin’s home ground after the WTC final, when he joined Surrey for a short County stint ahead of the Test series. He ran through Somerset’s batting with 6/27 in 15 overs, dismantling them for 69 in their second innings. As the Adelaide Test last year and the WTC final two months ago showed, Ashwin of the 2021 vintage can rise above the pitch factor, for he has become more skillful in the air, through his flight, loop, and dip.