Strange selections and the Ashwin question - five mistakes that cost India
After his team's 1-4 defeat against England in the Pataudi Trophy, India captain Virat Kohli said that his team was "competitive", and remains the "best" Indian Test team in the last 15 years. He said India want, and can, win series overseas if they create opportunities and capitalise on them at the start of the tour. However, Kohli pointed out that India had to rectify their mistakes first. Mistakes such as…
Were India match-ready?
Did they have adequate preparation for a long tour? Did the players get enough practice matches before and during the long tour to refine, polish, and regain form? No, they did not. India played a total of one tour game, a four-dayer, which the team think-tank, once they reached Chelmsford, asked to be shortened by a day.
Speaking to Michael Holding on Sky Sports, Kohli said playing weaker opposition in warm-up matches served no purpose and was actually a "waste of time". He felt it was better to play in simulated conditions, where batsmen could face the bowling they wanted and could alter the conditions of the pitch to suit their needs.
But India's batsmen still struggled with their technique against the moving Dukes ball. They failed to understand which length to attack and which to leave. Even their fast bowlers, who were otherwise consistent and effective throughout, struggled to polish off England's lower order, especially when the ball got old.
Kohli wants the various boards and the ICC to standardise rules so that touring teams get to play against top-quality oppositions and not diminished ones. Except right now, it is India - or at least their batsmen - who look diminished.
Was it unfair to ignore Cheteshwar Pujara?
India opted to play M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul in the first Test at Edgbaston. Although Vijay and Dhawan stitched together a 50-run partnership, neither stuck around long enough. Rahul made 4 in the first innings. In the second innings, chasing 194 for victory, India were 46 for 3, with Vijay making 6, Dhawan and Rahul 13 each. India lost the Test by 31 runs.
On the first morning, after the team huddle, Cheteshwar Pujara congratulated Rahul for getting a berth but he must surely have wondered what he had done to be dropped. Pujara had a poor stint with Yorkshire in county cricket, but that had come in April-May, when the conditions were cold, the pitches were seaming, and a couple of umpiring decisions went against him as well.
In contrast, the first Test was played in peak summer, when it was hot and the pitch was hard, albeit assisting seam. As Pujara would end up showing in Nottingham, and then in Southampton, if he could get a start, he could put the pressure back on the bowlers. Kohli needed a man to stay put at the other end on the final morning of the first Test, when India need about 60 runs. Pujara could have been that man.
Why did India play two spinners on a seaming, wet Lord's pitch?
There has been chatter about Kohli being unlucky, having lost all five tosses. But would he have made the right decisions even if the coin had fallen in his favour? At Lord's, having been asked to bat, Kohli said he would have done the same. Really? In conditions meant for seam and swing bowling? India were bowled out for 107 runs in 35.2 overs, with pacers sharing all ten wickets.
India picked two spinners in that game, with Kuldeep Yadav joining R Aswhin. Kuldeep had been the X-factor in the limited-overs leg of the tour. He had confounded the likes of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, but England's batsmen soon began reading him better, and playing him confidently. India still thought Kuldeep, with his unorthodox left-arm spin, could pose a threat in the Tests. As it turned out, both he and Ashwin went wicketless.
Bowling with the Dukes for the first time, Kuldeep found it hard to grip the ball in wet conditions and could not get turn. His pace was too slow on a seaming pitch, and England did not face any issue countering him. He was meant to be a threat, but ended up looking silly, thanks to the think-tank's folly.
And then why did India not play two spinners in Southampton?
History, and this season's county scores clearly indicated that spin would play a key role at the Ageas Bowl, with mercury for the final few days of the Test forecast to peak over 20 C. In fact, Kohli himself predicted spin would play a key role and pointed at how Moeen had hurt India in 2014. Still, he chose Hardik Pandya over Ravindra Jadeja.
In the first innings, Pandya was the most expensive bowler, leaking runs at over six an over, when the rest of the attack, including Ashwin, had gone for under three. In the second innings, on a fast and wearing pitch, Kohli did not have much confidence in Pandya's ability to hold one end up and used him for only nine overs. With the bat, too, Pandya failed to show any discipline and was easily sucked into England's plans.
Worse was in store for India as Ashwin lost his mojo, failing on the vital third afternoon to hit the rough, which Moeen showed he could do blindfolded. India once again faltered in reading the pitch and the conditions. Had they done better and picked Jadeja, who could have reduced the burden on Ashwin and, importantly, could have made better use of the cracking pitch. On the final morning, he was seen lurking around the ever-widening foot-holes, imagining how he could have hurt England.
Was Ashwin fit for the fourth Test?
Ashwin's form had no doubt hurt India, but was he 100% fit to play in Southampton? He had hurt his hip/groin towards the end of the third Test in Nottingham. Six days later, on the eve of the next one, Kohli said Ashwin was fit. After the Test, Shastri also said he had been fit. Yet, Ashwin was clearly having trouble putting his whole body into his bowling action. At the start of the tour, he could lift his front leg nice and high and power through his delivery stride. At the Ageas Bowl, it barely came up from the ground.
Kohli desperately wanted Ashwin to turn up on the crucial third afternoon and exploit the rough. He would bowl an unchanged 22-over spell, taking one wicket, that of Ben Stokes, by which time the match was already in England's control. Without a second spinner, even a part-timer, Kohli did not have any other choice but to bowl Ashwin. He even delayed the new ball in his desperation because the pitch was clearly breaking down and was more suited to the spinners.
Ashwin did not bowl during the training sessions leading up to the final Test at The Oval, where he was eventually dropped. Kohli would reveal at the toss that Ashwin had aggravated his injury in Southampton. So whose fault was it? Ashwin's? Physio's? Team management's?