Problem of Plenty in Indian Test Set-Up: But Is There a Vision?
India now seem to have two different Test squads - one for home and another for away conditions.
India is probably the only cricket nation in the world that can boast of having four squads. No, not in terms of India men, India A men, India under-19 boys and India women, but with regards to the men’s senior squad.
The India men now have four squads: Test squad (at home), Test squad (away), ODI squad and T20I squad.
That is the sum total of the most recent Test series win at home, over New Zealand. It was a mere formality once New Zealand were shot out for 62 in the first innings. Then it was down to the spinners to complete the formality, and for that Ravichandran Ashwin is the best man for the job.
For the last nine years, since losing to England at home in 2012-13, India has managed to keep up a proud record intact. Just a quibble though: Despite this massive win, India should have closed out the Kanpur Test.
The heroes for the past nine years have been Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Ashwin perhaps is the second biggest match-winner in Indian Test cricket history after Anil Kumble.
But apart from Ashwin, once again, there was nothing much to really gloat about, because it was a convincing performance by the usual suspects. The performances by the others who are part of the Indian men’s Test squad at home, means nothing really because this lot’s next assignment is not until February 2022.
This is the conundrum that Indian cricket think-tank faces because the performers at home, will not get a chance abroad, whereas those performing abroad will take a break at home.
Just look at this list: Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur, Ravindra Jadeja, Lokesh Rahul.
These aforementioned guys hardly ever play Test cricket at home, but are key to the balance and performances away from home. Come the Boxing Day Test in South Africa and these guys will slot right back into the playing XI, like they were never away.
Then there are the performers in Test cricket at home: Ashwin, Axar Patel, Wriddhiman Saha, Mayank Agarwal, Umesh Yadav and now Jayant Yadav.
These guys will now warm the bench in South Africa or may be busy playing Vijay Hazare Trophy and Ranji Trophy, because there is no way India will play all of them in that Boxing Day Test later this month.
So what did India really gain from the Test series against New Zealand? Nothing really. Just affirmation of the depth in terms of personnel for Test cricket both at home and away.
This is good in a way and bad too because the players are aware of their roles. The other way to look at it is that the players are going to get wasted waiting for their opportunities to play Test cricket.
Take the centurion at Wankhede Stadium for example Mayank Agarwal has climbed up a few rungs from domestic to international cricket, then got injured and then gone back in the pecking order. Now when he comes in, he scores a hundred when all and sundry were told that Agarwal would be dropped. Then next when the South Africa tour starts, Agarwal will go back in the pecking order. Only if there is disaster in the first Test will Agarwal make his way into the playing XI.
Over the last year, no one has suffered more than Agarwal. He lost his place, moved into the middle-order because of injuries in Australia and then was out of the side. Then he was out again with an injury.
The same is true for Saha. He is probably the most unfortunate cricketer of this era. When he started in 2009-10, he had the massive presence of Mahendra Singh Dhoni to contend with. Then when Saha became first choice keeper, he kept getting injured. His injury paved the way for Pant to become a breath of fresh air with his aggressive batting. Now everyone wants Saha to bat like Pant and then there is Srikar Bharat to keep looking at!
Jayant Yadav and Axar Patel will forever be in the shadow of Ashwin and Jadeja. Then there is Shahbaz Nadeem who keeps picking wickets for fun in Ranji Trophy, but does not get a proper run again because only so many spinners can play in a Test at home.
The fast bowlers for India have the best job. For a major part in the series at home, they can put their feet up. Then the white ball seamers take over for white ball series and again they can take rest. Their job starts the moment Indian squad flies off for a major ICC event or for a Test series.
But among the pacemen, the only problem area for the Indian think-tank is the form and fitness of senior pro Ishant Sharma. For a major part before the current crop of fast bowlers came in, Sharma was busy toiling away on dead pitches as a workhorse because there was simply no one else. Then he found his mojo back with the entry of present bunch of fast bowlers.
However long breaks between playing Tests for India at home or away, coupled with injuries has made Ishant a shadow of his former self. His place will be under question now big time, because of the energy displayed once again by Mohammed Siraj. Since he made his way into the Test XI in Australia, Siraj has shown tremendous energy while bowling on dead tracks in India or in the helpful conditions away from home.
Siraj’s growth does put a huge question mark over Ishant’s continued presence in the larger squad. Of course with Covid19 protocols in place, Ishant could still travel as part of the jumbo squad to South Africa. But if he is going to spend three weeks on the bench, won’t it be better if Ishant stays back, bowls a bit for Delhi in domestic cricket?
The biggest takeaway once again from the Test series against New Zealand is that the window for performances for specialists is shrinking with every passing day. You saw that in the way Ross Taylor played a horrible shot in the second innings at the Wankhede Stadium.
You can see in the way Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have to keep performing at every given opportunity. With the number of playing days reducing for these Test specialists, they always appear, at least to the outside world, to be playing for their place in the XI.
Hence both Pujara and Rahane appear to have a sword hanging over them. They will have very little to do for India, post the South Africa tour, because then there is just the series against Sri Lanka at home and then a long break.
Indian cricket needs to make a categorical statement by either retaining them or dropping them in the interim phase. But nothing in Indian cricket is for the longer term, everything is short term so enjoy the win for now. Selectors have less than a year in their tenure, so maybe no boats will be rocked for now. Just enjoy the fact that India now has four men’s squads and plenty to choose from.
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