England’s Test team selection seems to have been under scrutiny for most of the year, but after their crushing win in the third Test at Headingley it is now opponents India who are under the spotlight.
Virat Kohli’s side were bowled out for just 78 on the first day and went on to lose by an innings and 76 runs to leave the series poised at 1-1 with two matches to play.
With a quick turnaround before the fourth Test at The Oval on Thursday, September 2, we analyse the key questions, and issues, facing India…
What is the right balance?
It was India’s batting that let them down at Headingley as they were blown away in the first innings and then crumbled on the fourth day, losing eight wickets for 63 runs.
The performance has led to questions over whether an extra specialist batsman should be added to the line-up for the final two Tests. India have so far played five bowlers – four fast bowlers and one spinner – which has meant wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant has come in at number six.
That has created a long tail for India, but Kohli has seemingly dismissed the idea of fortifying the batting.
“I don’t believe in that balance and I have never believed in that balance because either you can try and save a defeat or you can try and win a game. And we have drawn games in the past with a similar number of batters,” he said after the third Test.
“If your top six don’t do the job, there is no guarantee that the extra guy can bail you out. You have to take pride in taking responsibility and doing the job for the team.”
If an extra batsman is not added to the line-up, then perhaps the make-up of the five bowlers will change for The Oval. India started their trip to England by playing three fast bowlers and two spinners for the World Test Championship final against New Zealand.
Since then they have gone with four quicks, leaving out spinner Ravichandran Ashwin for the first three Tests against England. With The Oval potentially offering more assistance for spinners than the previous three venues in the series, Ashwin could be set to return.
Patience key for Pant?
Pant’s year could hardly have started any better as he cemented his place in the India line-up with a couple of brilliant knocks in Australia. Having been picked ahead of Wriddhiman Saha for the second test in Melbourne, Pant starred in Brisbane and Sydney to help India pull off a remarkable series win – and put plenty credit of the bank for himself this summer.
However, with just 87 runs in five innings, at an average of 17.40, that credit is running low.
Pant has struggled to get into any rhythm, particularly when the ball has been moving, and his place could be under threat ahead of the fourth Test. Former Pakistan captain Salman Butt thinks Pant needs to improve his patience if he is to score more runs.
“Rishabh Pant doesn’t have the technique to succeed in English conditions,” Butt said on his YouTube channel. “He cannot just walk down the track to bowlers. He can survive for a while like this or may play one or two good knocks.
“But Rishabh Pant cannot become a successful Test batsman playing this way. He needs to develop some patience and also work on his defensive technique. Pant has a lot of shots but his defensive mechanism is not strong enough for Test cricket, especially in such conditions.”
Pant lasted only seven balls at Headingley, scoring one run, before edging Ollie Robinson to third slip. Robinson has got the wicket of the Indian wicket-keeper four times in this series, and Nasser Hussain thinks Pant’s position in the batting line-up is causing an issue.
“The key for me is his place in the side. He’s batting at six, which is fine if you have two batters behind him in [Ravi] Jadeja and [Ravi] Ashwin, six, seven, eight – that’s three No 7s if you like – that’s fine. The other option is to go with six batters and just slide Pant and Jadeja down one spot. But if you have him at six, Jadeja or Ashwin at seven and then four London buses after that, that’s a long tail I’m afraid.”
Can Kohli rise to the occasion?
He’s looked positive at the crease at times, and scored his first 50 of the series in the second innings at Headingley, but India captain Kohli remains out of form.
He hasn’t scored a century in his last 50 innings across all three formats and hasn’t scored a Test century since November 2019. His average of 23 in his last 18 innings is well below his career average of 51.14, and clearly India need him to step up. Former India women’s captain Anjum Chopra thinks Kohli is “trying too hard”.
“I feel he is trying very, very hard to be error-free,” she told India Today. “He knows he has got the game and the temperament, but when you focus too much, sometimes you tend to falter. I just feel he is making a slight error in judgement.
“I am sure he knows the remedy as well. He has got to play the ball and not the bowler. Just play the one-ball game. We always tell ourselves as batters that we need to focus on one ball, you have to make sure you are focused on the fraction of second the bowler delivers the ball. It’s just about being in the present. So it’s all about keeping it simple and following the basics.”
If Kohli finishes the series without a century, it’s difficult to see India coming out on the winning side.
It was a disappointing third Test for Ishant Sharma as he failed to pick up a wicket, conceding 92 runs from his 22 overs, none of which were maidens. The 34-year-old seemed to be in discomfort at times, even though Kohli dismissed suggestions that he is injured.
“I watch the bat of the batsman and I am not analysing how he is moving in the field. I think he moved like the last game. There was no issue whatsoever and as a batting group we failed in the first innings and in the second innings, we did a much better job. As a bowling group also, we accept that we were not consistent enough. That’s it.”
Kohli faced criticism after asking Sharma to open the bowling despite not looking as effective as his team-mates. He has been the least successful of India’s four quicks so far this series, and could miss out at The Oval, with Ashwin or Shardul Thakur the possible replacements.