Kuldeep for Axar or Surya as extra batter?
Ahead of the Ahmedabad Test, India, 2-1 up against Australia in the series, have plenty to ponder as they need a win to be certain of playing in the World Test Championship final versus the Aussies.
Just as India were coming to terms with their nine-wicket defeat in the third Test in Indore on Friday, an India player walked out to the centre and began facing throwdowns on a pitch adjacent to the one rated “poor” by the International Cricket Council (ICC). It wasn’t immediately apparent who the left-handed batter in India’s blue training kit was though a closer look caused surprise: It was Kuldeep Yadav honing his batting skills.
With Axar Patel making critical contributions with the bat — he is the second highest run-getter in the series with 185 runs at an average of 92.5 — the left-arm wrist spinner perhaps feels that improving his batting is the only way to make a case for selection. India skipper Rohit Sharma has repeatedly underlined the value of the lower order, which suggests the team management will give importance to that aspect in Ahmedabad too.
But with India desperately needing victory (4th Test -- March 9-13) to seal qualification for the June World Test Championship (WTC) final, there’s a case for making greater use of that third spinner’s slot. For all his calmness under pressure with the bat, Patel’s left-arm orthodox spin hasn’t had much impact against Australia. In the first three Tests, he has taken one wicket averaging 103, not the numbers you expect from someone who took 33 scalps in the first four Tests. More importantly, he has bowled only 39 overs — an average of 13 overs per Test. The main left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja has bowled 106.1 overs (21 wickets) and off-spinner R Ashwin 95.1 overs (18 wickets), the two having carried the bowling so far.
Considering that Patel is in the same mould as Jadeja, Yadav’s repertoire as a wrist spinner will provide a different challenge to the Aussie batters. If Yadav does get a look-in at Ahmedabad, it won’t be the first time the 28-year-old is summoned for the final Test of a series against Australia. Six years ago, Yadav made his debut in the series decider at Dharamsala, claiming 4/68 in the first innings of the Test that India won to clinch the series.
There are mitigating factors in Patel’s bowling figures this series. Unlike his maiden series against England when an injury to Jadeja gave Patel the status of the second spinner behind Ashwin, he is largely an afterthought for Sharma right now. He has bowled 3-4 overs on average in a spell against the Aussies, never getting the opportunity to build rhythm and plot the downfall of an Australia batter.
“Ashwin and Jadeja have bowled really well, so I’ve to continue to make them bowl as much as possible. If you have three spinners, you know the third spinner is always under bowled,” Sharma said before the third Test. “When you have guys in good rhythm taking wickets, you can sense that they need to bowl longer spells.”
Australia stand-in skipper Steve Smith was pleased with how he managed the spin trio Nathan Lyon, Todd Murphy and Matt Kuhnemann in Indore. “I spoke to the spinners on the morning of Day 1 that they have to take their egos out of play. For them, the pitch is spinning and they want to be bowling. But we have got three of them. If I take one of them off, it doesn’t mean he is bowling badly. It's just that someone else may be able to do a better job at that point of time. When you have got three spinners, you have to work them that way and keep them as fresh as possible. I was pleased with the way I handled the three spinners,” Smith said.
If indeed the third spinner has only a bit-part role to play for India, Yadav may be more suited to make a greater impact in a limited window. He is not as accurate as Patel and can deliver the rank bad ball from time to time, but a strike rate of 37.6 after eight Tests indicates wicket-taking potency.
The other option for India is to shore up the batting by playing another specialist middle-order batter and relying on four bowlers to take 20 wickets. As we have seen in this series, pitches have assisted spinners from the start. In such a bowling-friendly environment, the fifth bowler perhaps is a luxury India can do without. Having been bowled out for under 200 in both innings in Indore, it may be more prudent for someone like Suryakumar Yadav to be drafted in. India have been reluctant to play six specialist batters in recent years, but the absence of the impactful Rishabh Pant due to injury means an extra cushion in the batting department will be welcome.
Of late, India have not tended to make knee-jerk changes after a loss or two. In addition, Patel has taken 20 wickets in two Tests on his home turf in Ahmedabad. But with so much riding on the fourth Test, they may just feel the need to rethink the composition of the playing eleven.