During his press conference on the eve of the final, Indian skipper Virat Kohli revealed that team India would be announcing their playing XI post the conclusion of the presser. Though everyone knew what to expect, the wait was anxious as funny things had happened in the past.
Eventually, when the list came out, there was a sigh of relief – much to the jubilation of almost everyone, the playing XI consisted of the names of both Ashwin and Jadeja, who were set to play a Test together outside Asia for just the fifth time in a decade.
Yet things got complicated just 24 hours later. Rain played spoilsport and completely washed out the first day of the final, meaning everything, including the toss, got pushed to the next day. And while a section of fans were concerned that the washout would bring an unsatisfactory end to the finale – resulting in IND and NZ sharing the trophy – a vast majority wondered if, owing to the rain, India would make a late change to their playing XI by adding an extra seamer.
Of course, those thoughts emerged in the first place due to what had happened in Lord’s three years ago. There, in similar circumstances where the first day was wiped out by rain, India had opted to field two spinners in seam-friendly conditions. And well, to put it lightly, it did not end well. Contrary to speculation, though, there was eventually no late change to the Indian XI. “As you saw the makeup of our side, the balance is such that we prepare for any conditions,” asserted a confident Kohli, as India, in wet and overcast conditions, took to the field with a XI they felt had the ability to transcend conditions.
But as Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah laboured on Day 5 without help, doing it all by themselves, it was hard not to deliberate what might have been had Kohli had another seam-bowling option at his disposal.
This is not to say India picked the wrong XI. Hindsight is 2020 and, in all fairness, they picked not just the best XI players, but a team that was well-balanced. Playing Siraj as the fourth seamer was never an option due to the non-existent batting ability of the pacers in the side and while a good balance might have been struck had Shardul been picked, the management had every reason to doubt the Mumbaikar’s reliability with the ball, given he is someone notorious for blowing hot and cold.
But there were numerous moments in the game when it felt like India were a seamer short, particularly after witnessing New Zealand’s pace quintet exploit the conditions to the fullest.
The most notable of those instances came immediately after lunch. India went into the interval with momentum, having dismissed both Watling and Nicholls in the span of six balls. The Kiwis had to toil hard for every run in the first session, and Williamson’s side took to the field post the break feeling the heat, still trailing by 82 runs.
Yet while India, ideally, on the other side of lunch, should have thrown everything they had at the Kiwis, with the 72-over old Dukes still doing its tricks, Kohli instead introduced Jadeja in the second over post restart in order to keep Shami and Ishant – who’d bowled extended spells in the first session – fresh for the second new ball.
The (forced) change ended up releasing all the pressure that’d been exerted in the first session, as the Kiwis ended up scoring 12 runs in the first 3 overs post the restart to get their innings back and running. To put this number into context, it took New Zealand 11 overs in the first session to score the same amount of runs. Kohli was not to be blamed here, for his hands were tied, but it was a key passage in the game where India felt the absence of a fourth seamer.
This was not the only instance, however, where India felt the need for an additional seamer. Three overs into their first spell with the second new ball, Shami and Ishant, who’d combinedly bowled 20 of the first 35 overs in the day, started running out of gas. This was evident from how Shami lost the plot towards the end of the first innings as, despite dismissing Kyle Jamieson, he leaked a staggering 37 off his last six overs (four of which were leg-byes glided to the boundary).
Bumrah, too, by the time he was brought back in the 86th over, had already delivered a dozen overs in the day, and the inefficacy of the entire pace attack allowed the New Zealand tail to wag. Should India have had a fourth seaming option at their disposal, not only could they have exerted pressure on New Zealand all throughout the innings, but they could also have nipped the Kiwi tail in the bud. But the absence of one meant that they gave New Zealand space to breathe, a luxury their own batters were not afforded earlier in the game.
Indeed, this game is an outlier. Not every Test in England will have conditions skewed so ludicrously in favour of the seamers, and spin will inarguably play a significant part in most matches. But, with a five-Test series beckoning, India will go a long way in evaluating the merit of playing Ashwin and Jadeja together in England, where pace is the king. The question they need to be asking themselves is, even if there is assistance for the spinners, do they really need both?
They didn’t in the ongoing Test in Southampton, at least from a strictly bowling standpoint. Together Ashwin and Jadeja bowled a mere 22 overs, a tally fewer than that of all three seamers in the side. At no point did either man look threatening and both their wickets were as much down to the batsmen’s misjudgement as it was to their own guile.
And while it goes unsaid that their potency will multiply manifold on spin-conducive wickets, one does suspect that the team, with the Dukes ball, would need only one of these two wizards in the starting XI, for both are adept at being aggressive and defensive with the ball. As Nasser Hussain pointed out on air on Day 5, playing two spinners in England is a luxury; and not necessarily one that’s essentially beneficial.
“If not Jadeja and Ashwin then who?” is the question that will arise from this. At this point in time, there are no equivalent alternatives that will offer the same value, quality and reliability as the two virtuosos. However, with the England series still over 45 days away, it might be worth monitoring the fitness of both Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and add the duo to the squad if they’re fit. Both Hardik and Bhuvneshwar offer completely different packages, but, ultimately, they will not just add balance to the side, but will also ensure that all bases are covered. Should India have had either of the two men at their disposal on Day 5, you suspect the Kiwis would have been rolled over well under 200.
Not just them, given the paucity of seam-bowling all-rounders in the country, the management might potentially also need to start viewing Shardul Thakur as a pace-bowling all-rounder and groom him for the role. Colin de Grandhomme, despite being a bits-and-pieces player, has shown that there is always an avenue for cricketers like him to thrive, particularly in a place like England. Shardul might be on a different side of the same spectrum, but certainly, at Gabba, he showed that there is potential within him that is begging to be tapped. A five-Test series, where players will unquestionably have to be rotated, might prove to be the perfect opportunity to begin the experiment.
Certainly, India are handicapped to an extent owing to the fact that most – if not all – of their pacers are hideously bad with the bat. Choosing between Ashwin and Jadeja in England would have been a far easier choice had Shami, Ishant, Siraj or Bumrah been any good with the willow in their hands, but the quartet putting their hand up for being the worst tail in the world means that choices are limited. Ashwin and Jadeja could yet propel India to victory on the final day, for such is their quality, but the WTC final has given India a selection headache for the England series; one that might just prove to be impossible to solve.