By Garfield Robinson
“Never change a winning team,” the saying goes. Nevertheless, as with every rule, there are exceptions. India comfortably beat back the Australian challenge at Chennai to go one up in the four-test series, but the performance was not seamless and there are adjustments that may lead to an improved performance at Hyderabad.
The Australians scored 380 in the first innings and were cut down for 240 in the second but they would have fared even worse had the Indian bowling attack been more consistent. Ravichandran Ashwin was almost the lone destroyer in the first innings, snaring seven wickets, and though Harbajhan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja were better in the second innings, one cannot help thinking that Pragyan Ojha would have given the Aussies an even more difficult time. He should play at Hyderabad.
The question then arises: whom should he replace?
The pacers chosen for India in the first test, Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, bowled 33 of the over 202 overs sent down by their side. During the tourists’ second innings the debutant paceman had no reason to even mark out his run and Ishant was required for only three overs.
It would seem reasonable then, to deduce that the hosts could omit one seamer in order to accommodate Ojha. It is clear that the captain regards Ishant as his primary fast bowler and so Bhuvneshwar, if it came to that, is the one who would have to make way. Yet recent history has shown that utilizing four spin bowlers can be tricky, and surely, there is nothing you can do with four spinners that cannot be accomplished with three.
Also, it would be a shame to see one so talented discarded after just one game. The Uttar Pradesh pacer is potentially a spectacular swing bowler who could prove very useful before this series is done. The track at Hyderabad, if you can go by its history, might not be as spiteful from the first day as it was in Chennai, and so fast bowling, while still not expected to dominate proceedings, should play a more important role than in the first test. Bhuvneshwar should retain his place.
The man who should be asked to stand down is Harbajhan Singh. If it were a case of the selectors wanting to bestow the high honour of 100 test match appearances on the veteran then that is now done and they can now move on. One of India’s greatest slow bowlers, having marshaled over 400 wickets in his 100 tests, the offspinner was not at his best in the first test and his bowling over the past few seasons indicates a bowler who has been sliding down his once very high perch.
Ojha, on the other hand, formed a telling partnership with Ashwin during visits by the West Indies and New Zealand and was India’s best bowler when they lost to England.
All three slow bowlers chosen ahead of Ojha, R.Ashwin, H. Singh and R.Jadeja, are superior batsmen, but that is not a good enough reason for omitting the bowler displaying the best form leading up to the game – your primary wicket-taker should always be included. One motive given for the preference of off-spin is the proliferation of left-handers in the Australian line-up. According to captain MS Dhoni, “they had lots of left-handers and we assumed the wicket will turn and often it is said the away-going spinner is quite difficult to play.”
This is no doubt true. But there is also another view: on the wearing, spin-friendly surface, probably with some rough outside the left-handers off-stump, the orthodox left-arm twirler, turning the ball in towards the stumps, will force the left-handed batsman to play more frequently than the off-spinner, who would be taking the ball away.And this is not just the view of some obscure opinion peddler; it has the support by none other than the man who is arguably the greatest spinner of all time – Shane Warne.
Yes, India won in Chennai. But in the first innings especially, Ashwin was almost a lone warrior, as Harbajhan and Jadeja were not as penetrative as they would have liked. And though it is impossible to tell whether Ojha would have been more demanding in the circumstances, it is quite legitimate to argue that of all the slow bowlers available to India, he was the most deserving of a bowling spot in the team. He ought to play in Hyderabad.