India fought hard on the last day of the fifth and final Test against England at the Oval before the home side registered a 118-run win and wrapped up the five-match series 4-1. Opener K.L. Rahul and rookie wicket-keeper-batsman Rishabh Pant smashed entertaining hundreds, but in the end, the English bowlers led by veteran seamer James Anderson did the job to complete a fairy-tale farewell for ex-captain Alastair Cook. The 4-1 result was not a fair reflection of the series as India had their moments time and again. Strange selections by captain Virat Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri did not help India’s cause one bit.
Kohli’s obsession with the five-bowler theory meant that India were a batsman short in the first four Tests. It is common knowledge that a side needs six specialist batsmen to give it the best chance of winning a Test in alien conditions. Clive Lloyd’s all-conquering West Indies side and Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting's great Australian teams played with six specialist batsmen. As for the Aussies, they picked six genuine batters even when they had the luxury of having the great Adam Gilchrist walk in at no. 7.
One batsman short
Right from the South Africa series, Kohli has been hell-bent on playing five bowlers with the aim of picking up 20 wickets in six out of the seven Tests (three in South Africa and four in England) they fielded five bowlers, but it upset the team combination big time. India could well have gained a sizeable first-innings lead in the first Test at Edgbaston and the fourth Test at Southampton if they had a specialist no. 6. It is such a key position for the simple reason that one is there to shepherd the lower order and tackle the second new ball. The fact that the Indian openers were back in the hut soon on most occasions meant India needed the cushion of an extra batsman in place of the so-called all-rounders R. Ashwin and Hardik Pandya.
India played a second spinner―Kuldeep Yadav―on a seaming track at Lord's and fielded a half-fit Ashwin at Southampton where he was simply outclassed by English off-spinner Moeen Ali. Ravindra Jadeja proved a point by dishing out an all-round performance in the final Test. The Indian team management needs to be prudent and adopt a horses for courses policy.
Kohli was the standout Indian batsman and erased his poor record on English soil in Test cricket. But as a leader, he made too many tactical blunders. Shastri is known to be an astute thinker of the game, but it seems he is there only to give nod to Kohli’s suggestions. A more strict coach like Anil Kumble could have served the Indians well on a demanding tour as this one.
Barring Kohli and, to a certain extent, Cheteshwar Pujara, the rest of the Indian top order did not inspire confidence. The Indian batsmen lacked the technique and mental toughness to grind it out against a high-quality English bowling attack.
Indian pace bowlers led by Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami did an admirable job. It was great that both lasted the series, but when they had the opposition on the mat as in England's second innings at Edgbaston and the home side’s first essay at Southampton they could not polish off the tail. The contributions of the English lower order, where the young Sam Curran was a revelation, made all the difference.
Pant, who was drafted into the playing eleven after Dinesh Karthik’s horror show in the first two Tests, pulled his weight with his batting.
But one must not forget that it in Test cricket, wicket-keeping skills are of paramount importance and one can only hope that India’s no. 1 stumper Wriddhiman Saha regains his fitness and will be there when India tour Australia in a couple of months’ time. India will have their chances Down Under too, but the big question is will they be able to seize them.