When reports emerged last week that it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar who would have made way for Ishant Sharma in the opening Test against South Africa, it seemed a little far-fetched. And so it happened, Ishant’s slight niggle meant the call did not have to be made as Bhuvneshwar produced a sublime display of seam bowling.
That Bhuvneshwar does not seem to be high in the pecking order of India’s pace battery was confirmed on Saturday as Virat Kohli dropped the 27-year-old to make way for Ishant in the playing XI for the second Test at Centurion.
Jasprit Bumrah, who had made his debut at Newlands, retained his place along with Mohammed Shami. With the pitch at SuperSport Park being among the bouncier tracks in South Africa, Ishant’s inclusion was very well warranted.
What was not warranted though was dropping a pacer who has come on leaps and bounds in the last year or so. While Bhuvenshwar’s ability to swing the ball both ways with the red-ball has never been in doubt since his introduction to international cricket, it has always been his lack of extra pace which has set him back.
Lately however, Bhuvneshwar has worked hard on his speed and has been regularly clocking the late 130s km/h and early 140s. His beautiful seam movement has become all the more potent with the increase in pace.
While he did not have an extended run in the Test side in 2017 as India dominated at home, his limited-overs form is a testament to his unwavering accuracy and consistency. He was India’s best bowler in a dismal tour of England in 2014. Perhaps the only blot on his overseas record is his performance in the Sydney Test against Australia in 2015 where he picked up just one wicket, giving away 168 runs in the match.
With India choosing to stimulate conditions in South Africa during its last Test series against Sri Lanka at home, Bhuvneshwar was nearly unplayable at Eden Gardens as he picked up four wickets in each innings.
He continued that showing in Cape Town with a six-wicket haul where he ran through South Africa’s top-order on the opening day. Therefore, to learn that he was second choice on a track tailor-made for his wobbly seamers, does not reflect well for Kohli’s selection methods.
Bumrah, who leaked runs in the first innings at Newlands before coming back strongly in the second, was expensive once again on Saturday. So was Mohammed Shami, who looked down on pace once again. While Ishant toiled hard, India’s other pacers failed to maintain the pressure as they allowed South Africa’s batsmen to get away.
Shami bowled only 11 overs through the day and had to leave the field for a brief while as he struggled with his rhythm. Bhuvneshwar’s ability to keep things tight would have been a greater asset for Kohli at Centurion despite the lack of lateral movement off the pitch. He has also been handy with the bat for India lower down the order and the 127 deliveries he faced in total at Newlands was the most for any Indian batsmen in the 72-run defeat.
Kohli continues to make brave calls in his team selection but his dropping of Bhuvneshwar at Centurion reeks of a lack in confidence in the seamer’s abilities despite his consistent performances.
Bhuvneshwar had arguably been India’s most in-form bowler heading into the second Test and his place in the side should have been a given. More importantly, the fact that he would not have played in Newlands but for fate, shows that the seamer does not rank high in Kohli’s books.
The Newlands Test defeat to South Africa was the 33rd match for Virat Kohli as skipper of the Indian team.
Since taking over the reins in 2014, his tenure has been one of the most successful for India with a win percentage of over 60.
What is also interesting is that at no point during his time as skipper have India played the same XI in successive Tests. One would think that the No.1 team in the five-day format would have a settled line-up but that has not been the case.
Kohli and the team management have a horses for courses policy. Current form counts for a lot in the skipper’s books and it is for this reason India picked Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan instead of Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul at Newlands.
According to Kohli, Dhawan was preferred also to maintain the left hand-right hand combination while Sharma’s current form –an ODI double ton and a T20 century at home against Sri Lanka – saw him get the nod ahead of Rahane who is one of India’s most consistent batsman overseas.
While there is no denying that Rahane struggled at home against Sri Lanka where he could not buy a run to save his life, the fact is his overseas average (53.44) is more than double of Sharma’s 25.11.
While Rahane has been a crucial part of the side during their rise to the top of the ICC rankings, Sharma has flittered in and out of the side, finding favour in home conditions.
Sharma had a terrific last year in the limited-overs format but his temperament and style have always been ill-suited for the red-ball game. Plundering runs against a struggling Sri Lankan team at home should never have been used as a yardstick for picking him over Rahane, who made his name after scoring centuries in England, Australia and New Zealand.
In the openers’ carousel for India, it was Rahul who lost out to Dhawan at Cape Town.
Dhawan’s strong form in 2017 – where he scored two Test and three ODI tons – was also the reason behind him winning a place over a man who scored seven consecutive 50s in 2017.
Dhawan averages slightly more overseas (43.7) than at home (40.2) but three of his five away Test tons have come against Sri Lanka.
His weakness against the short-ball is no secret and it did not come as a surprise when the left-hander succumbed twice to the bouncer at Newlands.
Rahul’s technique seems to be more suited for South African conditions and although Dhawan does possess the ability to destroy a bowling attack, it is hard to see him do it against the likes of Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel in their own backyard.
Kohli has never been shy of making bold selections, many of which have worked, but in this gruelling tour of South Africa where the techniques of India’s batsmen are being tested to the hilt, he may need to go old school.
India’s batting-card was as sixes and sevens against the seaming ball at Newlands and it took a gem of a counter-attacking innings from Hardik Pandya to give it some degree of respectability.
There will be further minefields laid out for the visitors in the remaining two Tests and it is important that they bring out their sharpest weapons to the fight.
Rahul and Rahane might just be what the Indian team need.
It’s the final day of the final Test of the Ashes. Spoiling under heat that could melt a blacksmith’s gloves, England are once more toiling at the SCG.
They’ve handed a spinner their Test debut – why not? The management just don’t have the quicks they need to succeed Down Under, which they readily admitted by Boxing Day, only a few weeks after assuring all and sundry that the Ashes would not be staying in the country without a fight.
Those who doubt the merit of public relations degrees need only look as far as the ECB. Nothing-to-see-here soundbites, including chestnuts such as ‘no knee-jerk reaction’ and ‘the team is still in good shape’ fly out of inboxes.
Out in the middle, though, England’s last tail-ender gets clonked just below the knee roll and that’s it for another few years.
Can you guess which series I’m referring to? It’s a multiple choice question: a) 2013/14; b) 2017/18; c) 2020/21; d) all of the above.
The brutal reality facing England is that there is no reason to expect any change in approach to an Ashes series in Australia when diddly squat has been learned from the preceding four years.
England play the same, tired hand not just in Australia, but in the sub-continent too – where pace is not just important but a pre-requisite for victory. One, even two, Test matches may swing your way but an entire series without cranking up the speed? Forget it.
The problem is that England seem to forget every time they pop back home. Get some nibble out of the wicket and all their worries fade away. They haven’t lost a series in England since the two-Test clash against Sri Lanka in 2014.
It is, of course, fiendishly hard to win a Test series away from home because no amount of training camps and Lions tours will condition players to be as familiar with foreign wickets as their hosts. For a board awash with cash like the ECB, though, the least you can expect is a long-term strategy and a competitive side.
Mason Crane conceded 193 runs on his debut.— Test Match Special (@bbctms) January 7, 2018
That is the most by any @englandcricket debutant & the 3rd highest by any England bowler. #bbccricket #ashes
Instead CEO Tom Harrison and managing director Andrew Strauss – a man who apparently knows how to win an Ashes series Down Under – now have India, 4-0 and Australia, 4-0 marked against their names in the space of 12 months.
Their National Performance Centre at Loughborough, in Leicestershire, is stuffed to the gills with new-age tech, thinking and facilities.
Under a huge tent that acts like a greenhouse, England prospects are invited to have a bowl in what is meant to replicate sub-continent conditions.
There’s a ‘personal development team and ‘performance psychology’ team in addition to the usual jumble of coaches, managed by lead pace coach Kevin Shine and lead spin coach Peter Such.
Andy Flower – the then England coach who promised no knee-jerks after that 2013/14 tour – is now the technical director of the entire set-up. They all pore over hours and hours of video content, presumably to tweak a bowler’s this or that.
There are so, so many programmes. The Young Lions. The (slightly older) Lions. The ‘Pace Programme’, which has undergone a rebrand, but been in existence for a decade.
It all sounds state-of-the-art, visionary even. But pace is not a label of a fancy, well-funded initiative – it’s the figure that appears on a speed gun. That a broken Mark Wood and a suspended Ben Stokes were England’s only options in handing their attack the required pep is embarrassing for an organisation that view themselves as being, like, really smart, as the leader of the free world might say.
Is the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, as Albert Einstein almost certainly did not say, or is repetition the mother of all learning, as a motivational speaker called Zig Ziglar once uttered?
Whatever the answer is, in this particular case, England need to stop listening to Ziggy.