Despite the crucial win in Vizag, India need to get their selection right to record a Test series triumph against England
India leveled the series in Visakhapatnam on Monday after losing the first Test against England in Hyderabad. The result masks a poor selection that has crippled the home side against a daring opponent, who did the best they could with three rookie spinners on alien grass.
As soon as he came to bowl in Vizag, India's left-arm leg spinner Kuldeep Yadav revealed the folly of leaving him out of the previous Test. He got opener Ben Duckett in his second over, and should also have had the scalp of Ollie Pope in the same over. England's leading man from the first Test escaped as wicketkeeper KS Bharat missed an easy stumping.
Nevertheless, Yadav claimed three wickets in England's first innings after a good batting wicket. It was quite an achievement as the world's highest-ranked bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin, was wicketless, and the third Indian spinner, Axar Patel, could manage only a solitary wicket. It was Yadav's supporting role in speedster Jasprit Bumrah's magical six wickets that gave India a match-winning lead of 143 runs.
Yadav was sorely missed in the first Test in Hyderabad, where India gave away a 190-run first-innings lead by allowing England to amass 420 from a precarious 163/5. Patel, who was preferred to Yadav as the third spinner alongside Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, got just one wicket in that second England innings. Pope, whose top score in India was previously 34, reached 196 with three lower-order partnerships.
A hamstring injury to Jadeja brought Yadav into the playing XI for the second Test. But India's bowling remained handicapped. This became clear on the fourth morning during a long period of thirteen overs in which Axar Patel's only success came on the wicket of nightwatchman Rehan Ahmed.
As things stand, only three of them contribute substantially to the wicket count even though India have five bowlers in the eleven. Bumrah's pace bowling partner, Mohammed Siraj, has contributed even less than Patel. Siraj bowled 11 overs for 50 runs and took no wickets in the first Test. His replacement, Mukesh Kumar, bowled 12 overs for 70 runs and took the lone wicket of tailender Shoaib Bashir.
Yashasvi Jaiswal celebrates his double century against England.
Going by their track record, the pitches for the next two Tests in Rajkot and Ranchi are likely to be as barren as those in Hyderabad and Vizag, where only pacers of the class of James Anderson and Bumrah could take wickets. So, India could take a leaf out of England's daring playbook by picking just one fast bowler and adding a fourth spinner. Even if that is another all-rounder like Patel, who has a chip on an odd wicket, it would at least strengthen the batting power. Besides Patel, Washington Sundar or Saurabh Kumar, both of whom were on the bench in Vizag, could play that role.
Another option is to replace the second pacer with a sixth specialist batsman. That would mean playing with only four bowlers, which is a bit risky in a five-day match. But it could be a smaller risk than being thrown out for a low score and losing a Test, as they did in Hyderabad.
India have been skating on thin ice with their batting as besides playing five bowlers, they also have a wicketkeeper-batsman who appears out of his depth in international waters. Kona Bharat has a batting average of 20 with a top score of 44 in seven Tests. He has also fumbled the ball behind the wickets, missing Pope's important stroke in Vizag, denying Kuldeep Yadav a double in the very first spell of his comeback.
KL Rahul is expected to return for the next Test after recovering from a quadriceps injury. But given his recurring injuries, it is unlikely he can function as a wicketkeeper-batsman. That leaves young Dhruv Jurel, who was included in the squad for the first two Tests, as the only option for Bharat. Ishan Kishan made himself unavailable, and for some unfathomable reason, a proven international wicketkeeper-batsman like Sanju Samson is nowhere in the bill.
If it is Bharat or Jurel who keeps the wickets in the next two Tests, the argument for a sixth specialist batsman in place of an underperforming second seamer on barren, slow tracks becomes stronger. In that case, Rahul could simply come into the side as the sixth batsman, without dropping any of the five playing in Vizag. But it is also worth reconsidering the selection of two of the five batsmen in India's Vizag line-up.
Ever since fast bowlers discovered Shreyas Iyer's vulnerability to bouncers, his confidence has been affected. It even seems to have affected his handling of spinners as he feels forced to strike out rather than rotate the strike. He failed in two series against Australia and South Africa before the current one against England. The last time he got a Test fifty was against Bangladesh in 2022.
Apart from Iyer, debutant Rajat Patidar did not make any significant contribution. He looked unsure against leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed, who dismissed him in both innings. So the question is whether we should give Patidar another chance or bring in Sarfaraz Khan, who was on the bench at Vizag.
But a better alternative to both Patidar and Khan could be Sai Sudarshan, who scored a classy 55 on his ODI debut against South Africa in Johannesburg in December. As a left-hander, he would be a good counter to England left-arm spinner Tom Hartley and leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed in the shaky Indian middle order.
In Vizag, no other Indian batsman, barring Yashasvi Jaiswal who made a double century and Shubman Gill scored a century, crossed 50. The third highest score was Axar Patel's crucial 45 in a disappointing Indian total of 255 in the second innings .
Earlier, in Hyderabad, only three Indian batsmen crossed 50 – Jaiswal, Rahul and Jadeja – and none of them managed to reach triple figures. The collapse of the second innings, where India could score only 202 in a chase of 231, was a strong indicator that the batting line-up needed more strength. But India still went with the same combination in Vizag, where the batting was even thinner in Jadeja's absence. The home side got away with it, thanks to the brilliant luck of Jaiswal and Gill in surviving three shaves before coming into his own.
The bottom line is that India has left holes in both bowling and batting by selecting an unperforming second seamer and a wicketkeeper who does not contribute much with the bat. They tried to cover that up in the first Test by picking a third spinner for his batting ability rather than his ability to take wickets.
What happens when you focus on checking off boxes is that you miss the strongest options. England, on the other hand, did away with the conventional idea of having two fast bowlers sharing the new ball. 'Spin to win in India' was their mantra, even though they could only call on three starting spinners and the part-time off-spin of Joe Root.
Fortune favors the brave. Hartley made a stunning Test debut in Hyderabad with 9 wickets, Bashir debuted in Vizag with 5 wickets, Ahmed has picked up 8 wickets in this series and Root's 5 wickets helped win the first Test.
India must leave no stone unturned to maintain their winning streak at home against this feisty England side whose top Test batsman, Root, is yet to fire. The Indian think tank, comprising chief selector Ajit Agarkar, head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma, cannot afford to face another Test match with non-performing assets.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.