Updated: July 26, 2018 1:45:19 am
Should the prevailing heat result in dry pitches for the Test series, India have enough spin talent at their disposal to tie the hosts up in knots. But if the tracks are typically English, Virat Kohli’s seamers will need to step up and fill the Bhuvneshwar-shaped hole. A stock of the tourists’ bowling attack.
R Ashwin & the away challenge
Perhaps, there exists no parallel in world cricket that can capture the mysterious fall in Ravichandran Ashwin’s stock. After a stupendous 2017 that saw him become the fastest to 300 Test wickets and walk with an aura (“A leader without title”, in his words about his role in the team), he has suddenly finds himself on a ledge. Out of the limited-overs team, and now a question mark hangs over his Test spot.
Ashwin has done nothing alarmingly bad, but that’s the way the perception wagon rolls. The buzz is that it might be Kuldeep Yadav who will be the frontrunner, and Ashwin now has to (almost) fight for the second spinner’s slot. It’s the past that has caught up with him. Average performances outside the subcontinent have kicked up this dust. He was dismissive of the criticism of the spin-friendly tracks cooked for him at home, but now finds his remarkable achievements being cruelly put down to tailor-made pitches.
The past, often, has a knack of biting one in the backside. Ashwin is a proud man, and it will be interesting to see how he handles this latest challenge.
Record in England: Overlooked for the first three Tests, Ashwin gave a decent account of himself in the final Test at the Oval, snaring three wickets.
In 2014: Innings 2 | Wickets 3 | Average 33.66 | Strike Rate 71 | Best 3/72
Ravindra Jadeja: End or a fresh start?
This could go either way for Ravindra Jadeja. If the pitches remain dry in England, he could find himself in the reckoning soon. After all, he is the only spinner who can take the ball away from the right-handers, and as he has shown in India, he has the pace to find life in slow tracks.
Last year, under the guidance of former India leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani, he also found a way to make his slow(er) balls more effective and it led to a couple of good home series. He has the quickest arm in the business, not just in India but world cricket, and is athletic on the field. His style of predictable but effective bowling would ease the burden of a captain who is looking to keep things tight at one end. But what if Ashwin and Kuldeep do well in the series? It can prompt all sorts of questions over his Test career. He is already out of the one-day team, and almost everything hangs on this tour.
Record in England: Considering that MS Dhoni used him as a restrictor, he did a reasonable job of containing the batsmen, and did find some purchase in Southampton. Dismissed Joe Root twice as well.
In 2014: Innings 6 | Wickets 9 | Average 46.66 | Strike Rate: 104 | Best 3/52
Kuldeep Yadav: A new dawn?
It’s incredible really that Kuldeep Yadav hasn’t even bowled a ball in a Test for almost one year but is already seen to be threatening to usurp the tag of India’s best spinner. For those who have watched him for long, though, his has been an organic evolution of sorts.
Kuldeep’s strength doesn’t just revolve around the mystery of being a ‘chinaman’ bowler, a left-arm wrist spinner. He gives the ball a fair tweak, can turn the ball on most surfaces, can get it to loop and dip, and has the guile and variations that can sneak up on unaware batsmen. No-one asks the question about a traditional spinner — what if the batsmen pick them — for the real threat of a spinner is what happens after the batsman has read him.
In his brief international career, Kuldeep has shown evidence that he won’t be a fly-by-night operator. He has the ability to drag the best of the English batsmen forward, searching for the ball before it breaks away from them. There are other young spinners in the world who, it has to be said, pick up wickets when the batsmen try to go after them. However, Kuldeep has the ability to take them apart even when they are just trying to defend. In many ways, this series could well come down to how England batsmen play him.
Hardik Pandya: Hype or reality?
That’s the debate Hardik Pandya can settle for good in this series. A spunky knock in the first Test in South Africa earlier this year saw his stock go up but there wasn’t much return on investment in his subsequent returns to the crease. There is another aspect unclear about him: Does he see himself as a bowling all-rounder or a batting all-rounder?
The performances have been inconclusive. He has shown some spark in both departments and developed his art in both spheres, but a unified explosive package still eludes him. What’s his head space when running in to bowl? Is he trying to hit a line and length in hope, or is there a plan to get the batsman out? What’s his head space when he is out with the bat? Is it to attack always or does he trust his defence too? The answers aren’t clear yet.
Ishant Sharma – Matured, finally?
Something seems to have clicked in recent times. Finally, Ishant Sharma seems to be knowing what he is doing — or in other words, the ball seems to be landing where he intends it to. Almost consistently. India would hope this recent trend would continue for he has underperformed for years.
His has been a mind-boggling ride that should also castigate India’s support staff of the past. For some time, he was trying to copy Zaheer Khan’s release position — no one told him he shouldn’t be doing that for they are completely different bowlers, but he didn’t confide and neither did they find out. That was a few years ago. Then, when he recovered from that phase, the release position went awry. There has always been a stutter in the follow-through too. The obvious talent that screamed out in the way he harassed Ricky Ponting once had well and truly receded into distant memory but of late, he has amped it up. Hopefully, he can continue doing that.
Record in England: One of the architects of the famous Lord’s win, Sharma pulled his hamstring in the third Test and missed the series thereafter. He was, no doubt, better that the scattergun bowler he was in 2011 (11 wickets at 58.18).
In 2014: Innings 4 | Wickets: 14 | Average 27.41 | Strike Rate 49.2 | Best 7/74
Will the real Mohammed Shami stand up?
There has always been two Mohammed Shamis out there. An imposter who would suddenly retreat into this auto-pilot mode of nothingness, just floating the ball across, mind and body seemingly not there. Suddenly, he would stir into action and the red ball would kick up from back of a length, and he would consistently hit a great line, and the fingers would seam the ball one way to another — and all will look splendid in Shami’s world. But it can be a bit of a lottery at times.
In the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, India would hope that Shami can pick his form. If it’s the other Shami who turns up, the pressure on the Indian attack would escalate. There have been off-field controversy too in the recent past, and it remains to be seen how he has recovered mentally. At the top of his game, he can pile on pressure on a batting line-up but the question is which Shami would turn up.
Record in England: Beginning the series as India’s best-bet, he was woefully inconsistent as he couldn’t control the amount of swing he was getting. Was benched after the first three games.
In 2014: Innings 5 | Wickets 5 | Average 73.20 | Strike Rate 115.2 | Best 2/91
Umesh Yadav: Has the boy grown?
In 2012, when Umesh Yadav splattered Ricky Ponting’s stumps, it seemed India had found someone with pace and skill. But the next few years threw up this question: does he have the cricketing intelligence to become a world-class pacer? The answer is still blowing in the wind.
Not that he hasn’t tried hard. He even displayed some excellent reverse-swinging skills to harass the likes of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers in a Test in Delhi once. He still has the pace to make batsmen fret but the ability to string together a couple of high-pressure and high-quality spells in a day hasn’t always been forthcoming. It hasn’t been easy of course, with the constant chopping and churning. He seems to be playing for his spot in the side every Test he plays – and that, as history has shown, isn’t the ideal situation for any pacer in the world. He has the pace and skill to come up with some magic deliveries, and hopefully with more support and guidance from the think tank, he can finally start living up to his potential.
Jasprit Bumrah: Fitness issues
He won’t be available for selection till the second Test and it remains to be seen what his form is when he eventually recovers. However, he has been a quiet performer who has constantly upgraded his skills to force his way into the Test team. It’s not often that a bowler slotted and stereotyped as a limited-overs specialist has evolved to rise in stature. And it has not been an overnight turnaround.
For the last two domestic seasons, he has been working on his lengths for the longer forms of the game, he has worked on the ability to seam the ball away from right-handers, ensured he got more bounce than anyone from a good length, a key aspect in his Test success as batsmen still seem surprised occasionally at the lift he extracts. The captain can rely on a steady performance from him, which is still a luxury in this Indian set-up. But all that would have to wait for now.
Shardul Thakur: Slowly maturing
A bowler more suited for the longest form of the game has ended up playing more ODIs, but that’s how it rolls at times. He has a good curly outswinger, and a sharp bouncer that he can at times overuse, but he has a big heart and a tireless energy that Mumbai, his domestic team, has benefitted from.
Criticised for being overweight in his early years, Thakur shed the flab. Criticised for being a one-dimensional bowler who seemed to operate on two lengths — short and full — he worked on developing his repertoire. It has been a slow progress to maturity but he would strive to make a statement. If he can get those outswingers curling away, he can push hard for a spot in the team sometime during the series.