The Headingley Question: Do You Play Your Best Eleven Or Do You Pick The Team With A View On The Pitch?

Karan Kamble

Aug 24, 2021, 01:10 PM | Updated 01:10 PM IST

Ravichandran Ashwin (Twitter)
Ravichandran Ashwin (Twitter)
  • At 1-0, India is well-placed in the ongoing test series against England, but they will have a couple of areas to watch more closely as the contest moves to Headingley, Leeds.
  • India is off to a cracking start on its tour of England, coming close to winning the first test match before rain washed out the day, and then crafting a gutsy, emotionally charged turnaround on the last day to secure an Indian win in the second test match.

    It appears that Team India is starting to make it a bit of a habit to draw motivation from external circumstances in order to lift up their game. It happened earlier this year on two occasions, with their backs against the wall and facing an acute shortage of first-choice manpower — Sydney and Brisbane in Australia.

    It happened once again on home turf when India made a strong comeback to win all the remaining test matches against England after losing the first one to everyone’s surprise.

    The latest of these kinds of wins came at the Lord’s Cricket Ground. India was able to channel the tense energy stirred up by the Jasprit Bumrah–James Anderson cricket battle and some scattered chatter over days four and five to register a memorable win.

    It makes me wonder whether a lack of drama, with a focus on cricketing skills alone, affects India’s chances negatively. India fell short in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand when this was the case. There may not have been the non-cricketing tailwind necessary for India to propel themselves into an advantageous position in the match.

    Of course, New Zealand is a strong and balanced team that continues to be underestimated despite its exploits over much of the second half of the 2010s.

    For India, however, one would believe enough has happened in the second test match against England, on and off the field, for them to deliver an even better effort over the next three test matches.

    On the back of excellent seam bowling and the classy and dependable opening batting, India is likely to continue to fare well in the series.

    That is not to say, however, that India doesn’t have areas to keep a close watch on.

    Underperforming Middle

    India’s famed middle order stepped up in the Lord’s test to make some tough, gritty runs when needed to give India a shot at either saving or winning the match. But when evaluated over a period of time, they haven’t been able to make the kind of impact on games they would be expected to, especially considering their top-notch skills and rich experience.

    Since January 2020 (prior to the Lord’s test), Cheteshwar Pujara averages 25.09 (13 tests), Virat Kohli 24.18 (10 tests), and Ajinkya Rahane 25.76 (13 tests). In the 2020-21 cycle, they have a combined average of only 27.06.

    Pujara has played a couple of critical knocks during this time but not a lot else. He hasn’t notched up a tonne since his 193 against Australia in January 2019. Rahane scored a match-defining tonne in Melbourne towards the end of 2020, but great returns have been few and far between. Kohli has had decent knocks under his belt and appears to be in touch until he gets dismissed. It has prevented him from putting on big scores.

    In the Lord’s test, Kohli made a quiet notable contribution (42 runs of 103 balls) in the first innings while Pujara (45 runs of 206 balls) and Rahane (61 runs of 146 balls) held fort in the second innings with a gritty 100-run partnership for the fourth wicket and built the pathway to a win.

    Over the next three test matches, however, the three ace test batsmen will have to find a way to consistently put on good scores, both for India to notch up a famous test series win in England and for Pujara and Rahane to comfortably retain their spots in the team.

    There aren't many opportunities for Pujara and Rahane since after India’s tour of England comes the Indian Premier League, followed by the T20 World Cup. Test matches may return only towards the end of the year. India’s middle order would like to have a string of scores leading up to the next leg of test matches that are still a while away.

    No Place For Ashwin?

    Ravichandran Ashwin, among the best spinners to be playing the game, doesn’t have a place in the Indian team at the moment.

    In 79 test matches, he has picked up a staggering 413 wickets at an average of 24.56. He has eight player of the series awards to go with that, in tests. His batting returns are handsome for a world-class bowler, as he averages over 27 and has made five 100s and 11 50s.

    When Ashwin played in the World Test Championship (WTC) final against New Zealand in June, he took four of the 12 wickets to fall from the opposite camp. The match was in Southampton, England.

    He followed this performance up with a seven-wicket haul in the Somerset-Surrey English country cricket game in July. It took his five-for tally to seven in just 10 county matches.

    To say it simply, he would walk into any cricket team in the test format. Yet he has been left out of the first two test matches against England.

    This brings back the age-old question of whether India should be playing their best XI or an XI with a view on the pitch, conditions, and the balance of the team.

    India, after all, did play their “best XI” recently in the WTC final, including Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Ishant Sharma in the game, only for the result to go against India.

    Jadeja has earned his place in the team with excellent returns, especially in batting, in test match cricket. He has a batting average of 35, which rises to well over 50 if the period between 2018 and 2021 is considered. With his left-arm spin bowling, he has taken 221 wickets in 51 matches at an average of 24.85.

    Combine his batting and bowling returns with his exceptional fielding and you get a serious all-rounder who commands a place in the team.

    That being the case, can Ashwin replace Jadeja?

    The challenge would be that Ashwin as the only batting presence in the lower order wouldn't inspire as much confidence as Jadeja does, given the latter’s batting numbers in the last three years.

    If both Ashwin and Jadeja play, the pressure on Indian middle-order batting would rise greatly. The team would be left with only five specialist batsmen (excluding wicket-keeper-batsman Rishabh Pant), among whom would be three batsmen with very modest returns (again, a combined average in the 20s) in the last couple of years.

    However, it can be argued that batting would become more reassuring if Ashwin walked into bat in place of a fourth-choice Indian quick who wouldn’t be as good a bat.

    Ashwin has revealed that he was told he might play the second test before a late call snatched his hopes of playing.

    "The funny thing was, before the match, they were like, 'There's a heatwave. You please be ready mate. You might play.' Upon coming to breakfast in the morning, rains started lashing out.

    "I asked, 'Yov, won't you tell me about the heatwave after it came? Why give me hope only for it to end in disappointment'," the spinner said during a conversation with India’s fielding coach R Sridhar on Ashwin’s YouTube channel.

    “To keep the world’s best spinner out of the XI is not easy,” Sridhar said later in the conversation.

    Many former cricket players and experts have weighed in on the debate on whether Ashwin should play. At the toss for the second test, captain Kohli said, “Ashwin definitely was part of that (12-member team within the group)”, but the team that got picked finally “makes the most sense for us as a team.”

    But if a school of thought is to go by, seaming pitches should aid the spinners too.

    Australia’s ace spin bowler Nathan Lyon once said, “My theory is if it (the pitch) seams, then it spins,” an idea echoed by Australian great Shane Warne. (Old data suggests this may be a myth.)

    Ashwin, therefore, may still have a chance or two at creating an impact in the test matches to follow if selected.

    England Vs India, Round 3

    The third test match between England and India is set to take off this Wednesday, 25 August, at 3.30 pm. The match will be held at Headingley, Leeds.

    Team reportedly arrived at the venue Sunday (22 August) and began preparations for the game.

    The match presents an opportunity for both teams. England can make a comeback in the series with a win and liven up the competition or India can level up to go 2-0 against England and make it hard for the host to come back into the series with two matches to go.

    The third test, therefore, will be an important one. Team selection will once again play an important role — especially with respect to Ashwin’s place — and so will the batting performance of India’s middle order.

    When India last played a test match in Headingley 19 years ago, India won against England by an innings and 46 runs. Big hundreds in the middle order — Rahul Dravid’s 148 (307), Sachin Tendulkar’s 193 (330), and Sourav Ganguly’s 128 (167) — powered India’s mammoth victory.

    Any progress in this direction in the third would be welcomed with joy by the Indian cricket team as well as the fans.

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