Lose again now and the Melbourne heroics which followed the Leeds-like debacle in Adelaide last year will appear an aberration. Much of India’s recent “cornered tigers” reputation stems from that Melbourne win, a Test in which Virat Kohli did not lead. Lose now and the Lord’s win which preceded the forgettable Leeds outing will be distant memory.
Chase a win and risk punting again on a sorely inconsistent but experienced middle order. Maybe even repeat the four pacer trick, except some lead pacers may be tiring. Chase safety and risk damaging this zealously built image of India playing “aggressive cricket” always and never taking a backward step.
“We like to be in this situation where people start coming at us with doubts and really start questioning the ability of our team. This is the situation we love best. The guys in the change room are hurt and when they are hurt, they badly want to correct things.” These were Kohli’s words after India’s innings and 76 runs defeat in Leeds. It reinforces a rather unusual image of India playing their best cricket only when they have to silence their critics.
At the Oval, Kohli has to find a middle path, or at least wrestle with the idea of one. Has the time come to introduce some flexibility of thought? India need to indulge in a delicate dance of balance. They must temper attacking instinct with prudence in all areas from team selection to individual batting approach. Aggressive cricket shouldn’t always mean charging at the opposition headlong.
The starting focus, of course, will be the batting. It is one of those rare occurrences in India’s cricketing history that their ascending Test fortunes have coincided with a common and prolonged dip in form of their three main battling stalwarts: Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. Much of the team’s issues with inconsistency stem from their blades, but they have also played a big part in its success.
Since January 2020, India’s No. 3, 4 and 5 have an underwhelming collective average of 28.29 in 14 Tests, with the trio contributing only one hundred: a timely one from Rahane at the MCG. Just to put things in perspective, the same batsmen averaged 44.86 between Jan 2018 and 2019, with 13 hundreds between them, eight of those in wins. This is a staggering collapse in contribution which India has found hard to cope with but hasn’t addressed yet. To complicate matters, Kohli has ruled out adding an extra batsman, but would he mind replacing an off-colour one? The other option could be an extra batting reinforcement in the form of Hanuma Vihari, but that would mean Kohli going back on his word.
R Ashwin is among the finest spinners in the world. He has been in peak form of late. However, captain Kohli has opted for Jadeja in this series. In the past 3 Tests, he has taken only 2 wickets. One hopes that at the Oval, the most spinner-friendly of English pitches, Ashwin gets a spot in the playing eleven, irrespective of whether India goes in with 1 or 2 slow men.
India will also be tempted to play both spinners in Jadeja and Ashwin, and that could also mean back-tracking on the four pacer theory. “We have done it in the past,” bowling coach Bharat Arun said about how India planned to engineer a comeback. “We were bowled out for 36 (in Adelaide) and bounced back. We can take confidence from what we have done in the past. You will see a more spirited performance.”
While Team India mulls the notion of past performance as an ally, England’s changes are more straightforward, and on paper they could be stronger than they were at Headingley. With Jos Buttler on paternity leave, Moeen Ali is the new vice-captain and Jonny Bairstow is back behind the stumps.
Joe Root and the management have to choose between Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence as the batting option in place of Buttler. Chris Woakes’ nightmare year may also end with a Test call-up in place of Sam Curran.
Root’s main dilemma, a problem India are also grappling with, is bowler rotation. Should he rest ageing stalwart Jimmy Anderson and bring in Mark Wood? “It’s such a tricky balancing act,” Root said.
India, meanwhile, will hope they can get Root out cheaply for once and set the tone for some positive vibes. When at a crossroads, there’s nothing like an early course correction.