MS Dhoni has a knack of responding to questions in a cryptic manner. So when the former Indian captain was asked about India’s loss in the first Test in Birmingham at an event in Mumbai he said “To win a Test match you need wickets and that’s the only answer. It doesn’t matter how well you bat or how well you play for five days. If you can take 20 wickets you can win a Test match”.
There was truth in the statement, but also an unambiguous hint on Virat Kohli’s fixation on having a fifth bowling option to ensure India take 20 wickets in a Test match and also a lack of respect for runs. It is a belief that even Ravi Shastri had made clear during his tenure as the team director in Australia in 2015 “If you have three fast bowlers, the workload is hard. One needs a fifth bowler”. Shastri had said.
Ever since Shastri and Kohli were united last year India has persisted with accommodating the fifth bowling option in the playing XI in nine of the eleven matches. To Kohli’s credit, his team has achieved the goal of capturing 20 wickets in nine of the 11 matches. Strangely, however, the only two times they opted for a six frontline batsmen was at home and in one of those matches against Sri Lanka at Delhi, the four-man bowling attack failed to take all 20 wickets.
Which begs the questions do India really need a fifth bowling option given the potency of the current bowling unit? Given the nature of the surfaces India has had to play on during the series and the effectiveness of the seamers, the answer is probably no. But as Shastri noted in Australia back in 2015 that with four bowlers the workload is stretched and it reduces the fast bowler’s impact.
But the pitches in Australia were benign. In the ongoing series, the surfaces have had plenty of life and average England innings has lasted for 78 overs. Every time India opted for the second new ball in series they had on average already taken eight English wickets. So has the fifth bowler really made a significant difference?
While the fifth bowling option provides an alternative the all-rounder in the team should also be capable of contributing with the bat. Kohli has repeatedly talked about the five frontline batsmen taking extra responsibility, but as evident in the South African series and in England, that apart from the captain himself no other batsman has been able to fulfill that extra load.
Add to that India started the series with a wicket-keeper that had not played Test cricket for over a decade. From the third Test onwards they played a debutant. Hardik Pandya, the bowler might have proved himself in Test cricket, but with the willow, he had not contributed when it really mattered. Batting Pandya at No 6 and Pant at 7 are feasible options if the top order is firing and has the confidence to get big scores.
None of the Indian openers had crossed fifty in the series, it took Ajinkya Rahane four innings to finally cross fifty and Chesteshwar Pujara finally produced the big score in the fourth Test match. Kohli apart, the Indian top order was short of runs and confidence, so to put that extra pressure on them to produce the goods was only going to create instability.
At the conclusion of the fourth Test England’s warhorses, James Anderson and Stuart Broad were asked how grueling the four Tests in five weeks had been on their aging bodies. “It becomes an issue when we have to back up day after day, but this series rarely have we had bowl 20 overs in a day and then back it up again,” said Broad.
The tight schedule and the short turnaround in between Tests cannot justify the four bowlers plus the all-rounder strategy. Such is the depth and the bench strength in Indian bowling that if a seamer has a niggling injury or was slightly underdone, there are others more than capable of delivering.
Kohli has been so obsessed with the 20 wickets philosophy that he has almost forgotten the fact that even if he has five bowlers at his disposal they still need a respectable total to dismiss the opposition. In four Test matches, two in England and two in South Africa, the lack of runs in the first innings has resulted in India playing catch-up. Then in fourth innings, India has failed to hunt down chase-able totals of 207 in Cape Town, 287 at the Centurion, 194 at Edgbaston and 245 at Southampton.
So vulnerable is the Indian batting that despite Rahane and Kohli sharing a partnership of 101, Broad declared at the end of the game that he along with teammates knew they were always one wicket away from breaking down India.
All the bravado is great, but eventually, it should lead to positive results. Kohli the skipper needs to understand that to be a great traveling team, he needs to flexible with combinations. Perhaps with such a great bowling unit, the time had come to put the extra responsibility on the bowlers rather than the batsmen. Maybe it is time to check if the four bowlers can take 20 wickets and give his batsmen the luxury of an extra frontline batsman in the middle order.
The pressure of runs can also lead to wickets and Kohli needs to more selective and not be as hooked on one strategy. He might believe the all-rounder and the four bowlers are the way forward, but slowly the results have to prove the theory. For now, India has lost two away series in a row. The fifth Test at the Oval might be an ideal time to try a new theory.