“It’s funny how things change in a matter of weeks, or just about five days,” Kohli said on the eve of the second Test. “Before the first Test, no one thought that he should be in the XI, and now suddenly people are looking at the other option. For us as a team, it’s all about finding the right balance. If players fit in in the kind of balance we want to go with as a side, then they will fit in. We certainly don’t go on opinions that are created outside, and ‘talk of the town’, and all those sort of things.”
That’s Virat Kohli speaking, ahead of the second Test starting today at Supersport Park. Which makes you wonder who he has been listening to — pretty much every member of the commentariat, and large sections of the fans, were sure in their minds that Rahane would be playing; Rohit’s inclusion came as a rude shock. So yeah, not sure who those “people” are that Virat heard.
The noises coming from the sidelines of Centurion are, to use a polite word, interesting. In sum, the suggestion is that Parthiv Patel will come in, both Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan will sit out. Patel to open with KL Rahul, the middle order to be Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Rohit.
All of it is bazaar gossip at the moment, but the fact that cricket reporters and commentators present in SA are retailing these items is a reflection of the kind of thinking going on in the Indian dressing room. And it underlines the problem of team selection on a short, intense tour: If you get it wrong the first time round, you are likely to spend the rest of the tour scrambling to put various fingers in various parts of the dyke where leaks have sprung up.
The original problems spring from the fact that at Newlands, the team brains trust — which on tour is pretty much Kohli and “elder buddy” Shastri — picked Dhawan over Rahul to open, despite there being conclusive evidence that the left-hander is the proverbial deer in the headlights when good fast bowlers in helpful conditions make the ball climb into his chest and above, on the line of the stumps. Dhawan can bully the ball if he gets width, but bring it into his body and he is a different, and very uncertain, player altogether.
The error got compounded by the choice of Rohit, on one day form, over Rahane’s proven capability overseas — a point discussed at some length in this podcast I did yesterday for a couple of guys based in Boston. Those choices proved erroneous — and as often happens with our team “think tank”, instead of wiping the board clean and starting over, we try and find band-aid solutions. Can’t drop Rohit, can’t leave out Rahane again, so let’s drop a highly competent wicket-keeper in favor of someone who can put the pads on and go out to open; maybe he will slash a few, maybe he will connect with a few of those slashes, maybe we will get some runs…
Interestingly, while there is so much talk going around of how the batting lineup is likely to be rejigged, there is little or no talk of the bowling attack, and whether we have the right personnel. Given what we know of this team’s thinking, chances are if at all they change, it will be Shami out and Ishant in. Because Bhuvi is too much of a proven commodity to drop; Bumrah is the “new find” and an indication of this brave new India, and Pandya is, well, Pandya, so you can’t make changes there.
Some things that might be worth keeping in mind: Centurion hasn’t had a Test in over a year, so there is no telling what the pitch will actually play like. There is some talk of it being brown — but “brown” doesn’t in itself preclude pace and bounce; neither of those are the function of the colour of the wicket; its character is determined by the soil used, the nature of preparation, the amount of pre-match watering, and related factors.
If you look at history, Centurion has always been a quick bowler’s pitch — you have to think really hard to come up with a single instance of a spinner making some kind of mark on that track. It is also a pace and bounce track more than a swing and seam track. To my mind, an ideal combination for those conditions would be Umesh and Bhuvi opening, with Ishant and Hardik coming behind them, and Ravi Jadeja as the sole spinner. The top three quicks replicate the attack that gave the Aussies such a hard time even on Indian tracks; Jadeja over Ashwin because on wickets not likely to aid turn, Jadeja with his tighter lines and clever bowling is almost certain to prove more effective than Ashwin. He is also the better defensive option in case of need — he can bowl all day from one end if he has to, allowing India to rotate its attacking quicks in short bursts at the other end.
Which leaves the batting — and again, the ideal combination in my mind is the one that should have done duty in Newlands: Vijay and Rahul opening (unlike LoIs and T20s, makeshift solutions don’t work as well in Tests; you need specialists for the job of taking on specialist quicks); Pujara, Kohli and Rahane making up the middle; Pandya and Jadeja behind them and Saha in next.
Even as I type that, though, I know to a near certainty that most of this is unlikely to happen — but there is no harm wishing.
The home team, meanwhile, has only one problem, and it is a great one to have: they have four, maybe five quality quicks on the bench and they need to figure who plays in place of Dale Steyn. I was picking, I’d go with the experience of Chris Morris over the current form and raw talent of Lungi Ngidi or Duanne Oliver, who SA fielded against Sri Lanka.
As I said somewhere in-between, all of this, and some of the nonsense going around about “playing with intent”, was discussed extensively in the podcast, so I’ll leave the link here once more.
When play starts, I’ll do the usual Twitter thread. See you there.