Enter Ravichandran Ashwin
Ah, the complexities of selection. On this tour, Ravindra Jadeja’s inclusion in India’s XI at the expense of Ashwin has caused endless debate. Jadeja won India the second Test, validating his selection, but lost them the next, confirming the folly of his selection.
In Southampton, Jadeja was India’s fourth bowler, a bafflingly defensive move since he is not a full-time bowler. They paid the price, overburdening already tired bowlers and not being able to utilise a specialist spinner on what turned out to be a helpful surface, giving part-timer Moeen Ali eight wickets for England.
It was baffling even in light of MS Dhoni’s ultra-cautious preference for a long batting order.
Including Ashwin at the expense of Jadeja would hardly weaken the batting (Ashwin averages nearly 40, Jadeja 24). Ashwin’s poor away record has something to do with his non-selection, but India need options. Both may play (and Rohit Sharma dropped), but Ashwin will be the one.
The return of Steven Finn
Of the many factors behind England’s steep fall, a sudden depletion in fast bowlers ranks high. A couple of years ago, no pace attack was as blessed with depth: behind James Anderson and Stuart Broad were Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett and Graham Onions. In the interim, all but Anderson and Broad disappeared and the burden has told on them.
So the return of Finn is heartening. Finn should already be a permanent member of the attack, but for various reasons, he has not made it. Coaching over-interference is one.
Instead of technical correction, at times it felt that what Finn needed most was someone to tell him to just go out and bowl as fast and mean as possible.
His breakdown in Australia was sudden, but he has done well for Middlesex, under Angus Fraser’s caring eye. If he returns well, England could start looking like a serious team again.
England’s new spinner
Graeme Swann apart, England have a thin modern portfolio of front-line spinners. Ashley Giles is the only other notable, but he worked best as an unobtrusive complement to a quality pace quartet. The current answer may be a man who is not a specialist spinner.
Moeen Ali is a beautiful batsman, as elegant and languid as any England has produced since David Gower. But his role in this series has been that of the main spinner. Only Broad and Anderson have bowled more overs for England. Only Anderson has taken more than his 15 wickets.
There are dangers. He has been dismissed cheaply after being set and found ways to get out to the short ball. If he does not score soon, questions will begin about the toll bowling duties are taking on his batting. That is the delicate, ambiguous nature of what England expect from him; it is easy to see his wickets confuse his longer-term role as batsman.
Indian pace losing steam
A five-Test series was going to take a heavy toll on fast bowlers. But it seems to have taken more from India than the hosts.
In a simplistic way, that makes sense. Anderson and Broad are used to playing a five-Test series; Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami and Ishant Sharma have never played one before.
India will be without the injured Ishant in this Test, as they were in the last. For a while it seemed that Bhuvneshwar, their leading wicket-taker in this series, might also miss out, but he is recovering and could play.
India can hardly afford his absence because his new-ball partner Shami has had a poor series. His form has hurt India, because in English conditions they would have banked on Shami to pick up many more than the five wickets he has.
Talk that Varun Aaron, the fastest bowler in the squad, may play is handy. India need to look more heavyweight than they did in Southampton.
Finally, some cricket
It was inevitable, because any series involving India cannot pass without an off-field headlining controversy. “Pushgate”, as the continuing tussle between the two boards has come to be known, is finally over.
A new Test is beginning and the International Cricket Council has said they will not appeal the verdicts that cleared Anderson and Jadeja, the protagonists in the dispute, of any wrong doing. The behind-the-scenes political wrangling has been intense and a sign that all will not be smooth in the new world of the Big Three.
But it was becoming a little tiresome, and though India’s gripe with Anderson’s incessant sledging has broader virtue, it will be nice to just let the cricket do some talking.
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