Kuldeep must return to end obsession with direction of spin

Don Bradman never toured India. If he had, one imagines his batting would not have trumped the sublimity of the knock that Joe Root played in Chennai last week, one that could well be described as a “once in a lifetime” innings. Or at least that’s what Indian fans hope. A repeat this weekend at the same ground, would, for most, be not dissimilar to lightning striking twice.

Jimmy Anderson, the Sultan of Swing, would have been impatient to get the old ball in his hand and recreate the magic he produced by he has been rotated and Jofra Archer will sadly not be trying to deliver chin music (or hand music in the case of Ashwin), sitting out with an injury. But Indian hopes will hardly be lifted at the prospect of Stuart Broad joining the attack. The last time Broad was dropped from the first Test of a series a few months ago, the opposition bore the brunt of his ire.

Notwithstanding these concerns, which have obsessed fans on social media this week, it is unlikely that Virat Kohli and the Indian think tank’s attention will be on the England squad. Their focus will be exclusively on their own challenges, which are aplenty.

The top order has been a concern all winter, but after Adelaide it has come good in patches. Ajinkya Rahane’s form with the bat has been a concern for a while, notwithstanding his captain’s knock in the Boxing Day Test. But a class batsman like him needs a long rope.

Rohit Sharma will get a couple more chances one suspects before Mayank Agarwal is brought back in. The rest pick themselves, so the batting is unlikely to change for the second Test.

The bedrock of Kohli’s strategy, and the reason why he appears in the list of the five most successful Test captains of all time, is the obsession with taking 20 opposition wickets. This has been at the core of the development of India’s depth in pace bowling over the past five years. In doing that, it has for the first time in over five decades, taken the focus away from the tradition of spin that was nurtured by Mansur Ali Khan “Tiger” Pataudi in the 1960s.

Pace has thrived, and the performances of Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah on a lifeless day one and day two pitch at the Chepauk are testament to that.

The downside of that strategy has been a lack of appreciation of the role and efficacy of spin in engineering breakthroughs when pace cannot. This was evident in the selection of the side at Chennai.

The fact that Bharat Arun, the bowling coach who has done such a stellar job in the role, is a medium pacer, Kohli a batsman and Shastri a batting all rounder (in the mould of Washington Sundar, although far more skilful in as a spinner) meant that they were obsessed with the direction of spin rather than the type or quality of the bowler while choosing the XI.

It was evident that once Sundar had been picked to strengthen the batting, Axar Patel was the team management’s choice, his only quality being the fact that he would spin the ball away from the right hander. Once he was injured, Nadeem was drafted into the side, the thinking intact. By the end of the second day, it was obvious that while the one quality spinner, Ashwin, was able to use his skill to extract some purchase from the pitch, neither Sundar nor Nadeem were good enough to do so.

India had a man in the squad who is of a rare breed – a left-arm wrist spinner, perhaps the only kind of bowler who could have made something happen on such a pitch as India faced in the first innings. But Kuldeep Yadav found himself sacrificed on the altar of direction of spin. And his side paid for that mistake, losing its first home Test match in three years.

At Chepauk this weekend, India have their only chance to redeem themselves and get this series back on even keel. There is, however, more than a redemption of pride at stake here.

Anything less than a decisive series victory means that India do not make it to the World Test Championship final in the summer. At a more personal level, with the knives out among his many critics – who seem to have more of a problem with his persona than his leadership results – Kohli’s captaincy may well be at stake.

There is no reason to suppose that the pitch the two sides face-off on this weekend will be any different to the one that Joe Root is negotiating a price on for transporting to his backyard. Given that assumption, bringing Kuldeep in has become imperative. With Axar, a reasonably competent fit at No.7 back in contention if the obsession with the direction of spin continues, it might be Washington Sundar who finds himself carrying the drinks.

Australia have twice experienced the wrath of a wounded Indian Tiger 0-1 down in a series with its backs to the wall. Winning the toss will of course have the tiger’s tail up.

But notwithstanding the result of that game of chance, if Kohli gets his team selection right and the top order stands up to be counted, the Indian Tiger may well roar louder than the English Lion.

Whatever the result of the match, with half the spectators back at Chepauk, get ready for the combined noise to disrupt the flight path of planes taking off from Chennai International Airport and reverberate all around the world on Guerilla Cricket.

Jingle by Mog

Broadcast Schedule

England v West Indies 2024
ENG v WI 3rd Test, Edgbaston
26th July to 30th July
Start time: 11:00 am BST