Why did Ravichandran Ashwin, a guy with over 400 wickets get dropped? Why is Shardul Thakur over him? Is India saying Ravindra Jadeja is a better spinner than Ashwin? All questions get answered in this one.
Making a cricket team of 11 players is extremely difficult. When there are 1.3 billion people to choose from, it leaves with two problems. One, that you might end up leaving one player who was good enough to be in the XI. Two, there are potentially one billion talking about the fact that you left that good enough player out. This is exactly what happened in the first Test between England and India at Trent Bridge.
Ravichandran Ashwin landed in England earlier in June with 409 Test wickets to his name. He added four more to his tally in the inaugural ICC World Test Championship final against New Zealand in Southampton. At this moment, he is four wickets behind Harbhajan Singh’s tally of 417 wickets, and once he crosses that he would be the third-highest wicket-taker for India in format.
He has been exceptional with the ball in the last few years and even in SENA countries, the off-spinner has found ways to pick up wickets and averages less than 30 with the ball in recent times. Hence, dropping him from any team would be almost criminal. But at Trent Bridge, it made sense. At Lord’s, it will make more sense.
Between the WTC final and the first Test against England, India had a few weeks to reflect on things. While Ashwin was at his best in the only County Championship game he played, it was going to be his last for some time, given the conditions. When Ashwin was omitted from the XI for the Trent Bridge Test, a lot of people looked at it as the Indian team had chosen Ravindra Jadeja over him, but the answer is yes and no both.
Need of the hour: fourth seamer
During the WTC final, captain Virat Kohli almost seemed like he was calling for a fourth seamer. But he didn’t have any. On Day 6 when India had to bowl out New Zealand in the second innings, the three pacers bowled for the entirety of the first session. There wasn’t an itch for the spinner on that track. Though the trio of Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, and Ishant Sharma bowled well, one could only wonder what the result could have been if India had just one extra seamer.
And the fact that New Zealand had the same luxury of having four or potentially five seamers, rotating them became really easy for Kane Williamson. This is when a little guidebook to English pitches has to be given. In case you haven’t noticed, they don’t turn. They don’t often offer much to the spinners.
In fact, in one of his video essays, acclaimed cricket writer (and everything I want to be) Jarrod Kimber noted that he came across a stat which said that the most spinning track in England is the 60th-most spinning track in the world. And that is the pitch in Taunton which doesn’t host (men’s) Tests. The next pitch in England on the list is the Oval in London (more on that pitch later), which is ranked 81st.
The conditions in England are anything but spin-friendly. The moment the clouds come into play (which is almost every other session at times), the whole game changes, quite literally. In those conditions, you always want a seamer attacking the stumps or the off-stump corridor which was the case during that one session in the WTC Final which is mentioned earlier.
You can’t simply throw the ball in those conditions to a spinner and hope for wickets from them. And considering how the conditions have been in England in Test cricket for the last few years, it is quite evident there has been something on offer for the pacers every time.
All of this can be calibrated together to say, yes India should have four seamers and one spinner in their team for this series. Case closed right? Well, not with this Indian team. India just doesn’t have the world’s two best spinners in their team but they have two spinners named ‘Ravi’ while the third ‘Ravi’ spinner coaches them.
Ashwin vs Jadeja?
When deciding on whether it was Ashwin or Jadeja who was going to make it to the XI, it would have been hugely difficult. Ashwin has an impressive record with the ball in England. He picked up seven wickets in a county match recently (at the Oval. It’s not done yet, I will come back to this later again). But, India faced the same problem which England faced with Sam Curran. You can bat Ashwin at no. 8, but no. 7 is a bit too high for him.
Even if you are going to make an argument that Ashwin is a better bowler and he must be chosen based on his primary skill, it again brings us to the same conversation, whether he was going to answer any question. He is exceptional against left-handers, but he won’t bowl at them much in this series. With Ben Stokes out, the only left-hander in the top seven of the English batting line-up is Rory Burns. And given Burns’ recent form it doesn’t seem that he would last for long at the crease.
Ashwin is good against right-handed batsman as well, make no mistake. But, on pitches that don’t turn, the spinner who brings the ball into the right-handers (right-arm off-spin) is less effective. You would rather go for a bowler who takes the ball away from them (left-arm spin, i.e. Sir Jadeja). And, England has a problem against that kind of bowler (remember Axar Patel?).
Let’s go back a bit and talk about no. 7 and no. 8 in Tests for India in the recent past. On the 2018 England tour, India started with Hardik Pandya (assumed to be a better batter than Ashwin) at no. 7 while they still had Ashwin batting anywhere between no. 6 to no. 8. And that works, because Pandya is a seam-bowling all-rounder. Basically, four seamers, check. One spinner, check. At least, two solid batters at no.7 and no. 8, check.
Come 2021, Hardik is struggling with his back and not played Tests for a long time. So you are potentially left with Ravindra Jadeja at no. 7 to do the ‘all-rounder job that Hardik Pandya never was’ role and Ashwin at no. 8. Now, this is the exact thought which was given for the WTC Final. ‘India played their best XI,’ everyone said. True. But, not the XI that was best suited for that rainy-overcast Southampton weather.
Shardul Thakur- The lord who solves problems
Talking about things that India missed at the match, there was an outcry from several former players that they needed an out and out swing bowler. Everyone gave an example of how Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who is going to decide on his Test career after the T20 World Cup, could have been a great choice. True again. But, he wasn’t in England and wasn’t going to be.
So, basically, India, going into the first Test needed a combination of four seamers and one spinner, among them one has to be a good batter while another seamer should have an ability to bat. They also needed a swing bowler. All of that added to one man, Shardul Thakur.
Once India decided that they needed four seamers, it was never going to be Ashwin at no. 7. Even if Ashwin plays, he needs to play with Jadeja. You can’t just drop Jadeja. The competition was actually between Shardul and Ashwin as Deep Dasgupta pointed out.
Top 5 spinners in SENA Countries since 2018
No. 7- the one who bats and bowls a bit
Now, let’s talk a bit about Jadeja’s bowling. In England, you ideally need someone who can bat at no. 7 and also maybe deliver a few overs. Jadeja bowled three overs in the first innings at Trent Bridge. He had bowled seven out of the 100 overs in the first innings of the WTC Final. And that is how it is going to be through this summer in England. He might not get a lot of wickets and his average will go up a bit, but he is in here more as a batter and less as a bowler. He is more of a batter who can bowl exceptional deliveries if conditions favor him.
But could India have gone with Hanuma Vihari (India’s second-best right-arm off-spinner currently after Ashwin)? Well, he bats. He has batted a lot in his career and can certainly score some runs. And can bowl a bit whenever it is required. In theory, yes. But numbers suggest that Jadeja has been a better batsman in the last few years. He has somehow managed to score quickly and get dismissed less and most importantly, scores more runs than Vihari.
Batting records since 2018
The experimentation with four-man attack
There is an interesting bit that I missed while connecting the 2018 England tour and the ongoing one. In the final Test on that tour, when India had already lost the series 3-1, they experimented with their combination. Instead of five bowling options, India went in with four and our man, Hanuma Vihari. The offie managed to dismiss Alastair Cook in his last inning and Joe Root with the very next ball (venue: The Oval. I will come back to it one last time).
Later that year in Australia, India played the Perth Test against Australia with Vihari as India’s lone spin option. That experiment of playing with four bowling options along with Vihari went on till the 36-all out match in Adelaide. In the Melbourne Test, Jadeja showed what he can offer at no. 7 and for now, it fits well for the Indian team. It allows the captain to rotate his bowlers better and adds variation to the bowling unit as well.
Where can Jadeja-Ashwin play together?
In that match though, Ashwin played alongside Jadeja. It can happen in this series as well. Maybe not at Lord’s. But, in that video essay by Jarrod Kimber, which I mentioned earlier, he had made an observation. Oval is the second-best ground in England for spinners. Old Trafford is the third-best. Add to the fact that, the ball spins more in England in September, there is hope for Ashwin that he can get past Bhajji on this tour itself. The last two matches of the series will be played in September in Oval and Old Trafford respectively (done with the Oval point).
So, maybe, chances are that India will choose Ashwin ahead of Shardul Thakur in those two matches. The third Test is at Headingley at Leed’s which saw some spin in the white-ball matches which have been played there recently, but what will happen with the red-ball, come the end of August is anyone’s guess for now.
With any other team, these discussions would not have been possible. India just made a team where you can pick and choose specific players for specific conditions. Think about Australia, they won’t drop Nathan Lyon to just add a bit more to their batting at no. 7 with a spin-bowling all-rounder who can do as good a job as him and bat as good as any no. 7 in the world. Do you know why? Because they don’t have a player like Jadeja.
Take for another example of Moeen Ali. He is possibly the best spinner in red-ball cricket in England right now but won’t get a game because, well, who knows? (someday I will write about this). The fact that England has not used a spinner in any of the Tests this summer is quite simple. They know they have asked for pitches that won’t turn. The last time when India was here, the weather had been hot in England and spinners were going to be needed. They had Adil Rashid come out of red-ball retirement (or break, whatever you may call) to play in that series.
Now, if you were England’s team management and you knew India had three world-class spinners in their squad, would you make a pitch that turns? That’s like India inviting England and serving them green-top wickets with technologically induced clouds over the skies so that Stuart Broad can revive his falling Test career (Don’t write him off though, I am not).
Shardul Thakur may not be as good a batter as Ashwin. But he solved a lot of problems that India potentially was going to face without the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya. He is everything you would want to have. He has magical hands which take magical wickets at magical times by bowling magical balls (a little too much, eh?).
Shardul has started his batting in England with a duck and soon Twitter will bombard with Ashwin’s batting average and technical capabilities and whatnot if he fails to bat well at Lord’s. But remember, in cricket, it does not matter if your no. 8 has a better batting average than Sam Curran against India. Or his batting average is 10 runs less than Ashwin. What matters is that the whole team together manages to score one run more than the opposition.