Old Trafford (Manchester): India are confronted by challenging selection issues as they enter what could be a rain-interrupted fourth cricket Test against England with the best-of-five series level at 1-1.
Left-handed opener Shikhar Dhawan has failed in the previous three Tests and is clearly struggling against swing bowling. Does he continue? The dilemma the tour selectors are facing is that the like-for-like replacement Gautam Gambhir is bereft of match practice for over a month. His Test record in England is also uninspiring.
After success with five bowlers in the first two Tests, India’s inexplicably switched to a defensive, four-bowler and extra-batsman combination in the third Test, which came a cropper, with England carving out a comprehensive victory.
In this experiment, the burly Rajasthan fast medium exponent Pankaj Singh, drafted in to replace an injured Ishant Sharma, was unlucky in the first England innings, but relatively unimpressive in the second; while Mohammed Shami, who was leading the attack over the winter, continued to disappoint.
As for the spin department, historically India’s greatest strength, Saurashtra’s Ravindra Jadeja has hardly turned a ball on a normal surface and has been wholly dependent on roughs to appear (only useful against left-handed batsmen) to deviate the leather.
Unconfirmed rumours abound about this left-arm spinner’s shoulder not being able to withstand the strain. India are, therefore, likely to turn to Tamil Nadu off-spinner Ravi Ashwin to revert to a five-bowler policy when the playing XI is announced Thursday morning.
In recent years, Old Trafford has a reputation of assisting spin on the fourth and fifth days of a Test match. The square, relaid a few years ago to give the pavilion a straight rather than side view of the pitch, is hard, so a spinner obtains bounce in addition to turn.
Of course, the hardness of the pitch also means quicker bowlers are in business in the first phase of a match. And Manchester being in the north-west of England and not far from the blustery Irish sea, the ball traditionally deviates in the air as well as initially off the wicket.
Consequently, James Anderson, who is bound to be extended a thunderous reception by his home crowd, notwithstanding the Indian side’s allegations of aggressive behaviour against him, will persist in being a thorn in the tourists’ side.
And now that England’s strategy of picking four faster bowlers and a part-time off-spinner in Moeen Ali has been vindicated, they will undoubtedly persevere with this. The only question being: does Chris Jordan, who was wayward at Southampton, retain his place or will either Steven Finn or Ben Stokes step into his shoes?
India have the option of asking Cheteshwar Pujara to open with Murali Vijay and giving Rohit Sharma another opportunity; in which case, Dhawan would be rested. Alternatively, Sharma could be sidelined.
But India are really required to carefully consider the composition of their five specialist bowlers. The England’s batsmen’s spineless showing versus the extra pace of Mitchell Johnson in Australia last winter, when they were blown away 4-0, is a clue the Indians have so far ignored.
Varun Aaron may not have the experience or the sustained hostility of the Australian, but he has clocked 147 mph plus this year and is, therefore, genuinely rapid. If he simply bowls straight, he is bound to push the Englishmen on to the back foot; and this could yield dividends.
There are indications from the Indian camp that Aaron is in with a shot, with either Singh or Shami losing out.