Every visiting team to India has resorted to mind games before a Test series. Statements like “we have a good chance of winning the series” and “on paper we look a better side” or “we prefer to be underdogs” have become mundane. The visitors continue to talk about “doctored pitches” and predict the duration of the match on such wickets. The visitors invariably fire the first salvo, pushing the home team on the defensive. Sometimes the host cricket board takes cudgels on behalf of the curators. Add to it the media hype of battles within battle like Dale Steyn vs Shikhar Dhawan, Morne Morkel vs Virat Kohli or Ravichandran Ashwin vs AB de Villiers and Amit Mishra vs Hashim Amla.
One look at the Mohali pitch, where the first Test gets underway on Thursday, and South Africa’s Twenty20 captain Faf du Plessis has read it quickly to say that it will afford spin from Day One! Carrying forward the argument he said the match may not go beyond three days and they would be planning an attacking strategy. How simple it all sounds, only the execution part remains. A side which won both the T20 and One-Day series wherein they used their spinners to profit are now wondering how to tackle slow and low turners. It is a bit strange, the Mohali pitch never turned on the opening day. If anything it always helped the fast bowlers to start with. Though it is no longer the pitch it was in its initial years when it had a decent bounce and carry to encourage bowlers and at the same the ball coming on to the bat for the batsmen to play the strokes. To rub it in, du Plessis stated that he thinks that in the past the pitches probably used to spin on day three, four and five but they start doing that on day one now. This is some assessment of the pitch! Ravi Shastri has no qualms about saying that the home team should always play to its strengths and India’s strength is spin.
The argument cuts both ways, you keep winning at home on under-prepared tracks and losing overseas not being able to bowl or bat on green tops. Shastri is right that every country does that but is it good for international cricket? Shastri and skipper Virat Kohli have another headache, that’s picking playing eleven. There is no point talking of having played five bowlers against Sri Lanka or, for that matter, reminding about India whitewashing Australia 4-0 less than two years ago. The side that demolished Australia on turning tracks could afford to go in with five batsmen and five bowlers as it had Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The selectors could afford to even drop Virender Sehwag after failing in the first two Tests and Shikhar Dhawan grabbed the opportunity to smash 187 on debut at the same Mohali Stadium. Poor Sehwag never got to play another Test. At that time India played with two off-spinners in Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh with left-arm Ravindra Jadeja in the first two Tests and two lefties in the third and fourth, Pragyan Ojha replacing Harbhajan. One big difference this time is India can play spinners of three different styles, leg-spinner Amit Mishra complementing Ashwin and Jadeja. That does not mean they will play with five bowlers. Shastri tried to be brave saying he would not be averse to playing four spinners if the curator gives him a pitch to support the move. Kohli obviously wants to keep his reputation as a captain who is out to win and for that he thinks he needs five bowlers. He should pause and see the virtues being defensive at times and at least in the first Test, he should be toying with the idea of playing six batsmen, but looking at the South Africa’s attack and an unusual Mohali pitch bereft of any green, he will go in with five batsmen. He can afford to talk of taking 20 wickets even if six batsmen give the team 500 runs. He should also look at the batting line-up he has and what happened in the first Test against Sri Lanka after taking a sizeable first-innings lead. If Kohli sticks to his theory, then he will have to decide who, between the attacking Rohit Sharma and more solid Cheteshwar Pujara, to play.
In that case, the fifth bowler will have to be Stuart Binny to strengthen the batting. Now they are looking at three bowling all-rounders though now Mishra can also stake his claims to be in that category after his performance with the bat in Sri Lanka. Come to think of it, all eleven can boast of a first-class hundred to their credit, the latest being Umesh Yadav who scored a century against Odisha in the Ranji Trophy last month! To accommodate an extra batsman or a bowler India in the past opted to open the innings with all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar or wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia. The quick-fix methods can only be temporary. They don’t work in the long run as Test teams need specialists, not bits and pieces players. Don’t forget, South Africa has AB de Villiers and that can take care of five bowlers and you can’t hope to see the poor form of their captain Hashim Amla carry forward into Tests. Then they have Du Plessis and at some point JP Duminy will join the ranks recovering from injury. Then the two pacemen Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel can be a handful on any pitch and a third seamer Vernon Philander and if it turns more than necessary they have leggie Imran Tahir. It should be a tight contest, can India pull it off? (Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)