Former chief national selector MSK Prasad weighed in on India’s team selection for the World Test Championship (WTC) final against New Zealand, emphasising it was the batting unit that resulted in Virat Kohli and Co. going down by 8 wickets in Southampton.
India made an early statement by announcing their playing XI a day before the marquee clash. They named two spinners in Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and persisted with the combination despite getting close to 48 hours to alter it after the opening day was washed out. MSK Prasad, however, feels people shouldn’t ponder over the line-up too much.
“We have gone with our best combination, that’s not the issue. It’s our batting which has let us down, why are people bothered about bowling? After falling 60 runs short [in the first innings], you can’t expect to win. If they had gotten 300 runs, the match would either have been in our favour or it would have been a draw. So I don’t think there was anything wrong with the playing XI,” MSK Prasad said in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.
Ashwin scored 29 runs (22 & 7) and took 4 wickets (2 for 28 & 2 for 17) while Jadeja amassed 31 runs (15 & 16) and scalped 1 wicket (1 for 20 & 0 for 25). While observers praised the left-arm spinner for the way he exploited the rather seaming conditions at the Hampshire Bowl, they couldn’t quite understand Jadeja’s selection.
Many are of the opinion that a fourth seamer in Mohammed Siraj would have helped India's cause. Siraj could not only have maximised the conditions more than Jadeja was able to, but also ensured India had one pacer recharged at all times.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. India’s three seamers – Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami – had to shoulder the bulk of the load, and as was apparent, Shami had heavy legs towards the end of the Kiwi first innings and Ishant simply ran in during the second.
MSK Prasad threw his weight behind Jadeja, opining the 32-year-old would have been a lethal weapon had Day 4 not been a washout.
“There was a reason why Jadeja was played. The reason was that, if in case it would have been a full game, there would have been a lot of footmarks, they [NZ] had many left-handers in their side, which he could have fancied his chances against. If you really look at it, there was some spin on offer which helped even Ashwin.
“Also, considering the kind of form that Jadeja is in, that was the best possible XI we could have put up. The first day got washed but it still was a five-day game with the extension of one more day. So had it been a five-day game, Jadeja would definitely have come in handy,” Prasad, who served as chief selector from 2016 to 2020, elaborated.
There were also talks regarding whether India could have fared better playing an extra batsman. But MSK Prasad was quick to shoot down such suggestions, claiming Jadeja merited a place simply because of his all-round abilities.
“Jadeja is no less than anyone with the bat. If you see his Test record of late, he has been very good with the bat. Plus he would have been an added advantage with the ball and also on the field. Had Hardik Pandya been there, then there would not have been any second thoughts. But since he is not there, we wanted one more all-rounder and we only had a spinning all-rounder,” he added.
Jadeja’s batting exploits have indeed been in the ascendancy since 2017. He didn’t let his batting average drop below 41 in any of the years through to 2021, with the number even soaring to 62.86 in 2019. He played just 2 Tests this year scoring 59 runs, but he already made the headlines by smashing Harshal Patel for 37 runs in an over during IPL 2021.
Even in the WTC final, he held the fort at one end when the going was tough. He scored a patient 53-ball 15 along with Ashwin in the first innings to help India cross the 200-run mark. And in the second innings, he kept the Black Caps at bay with a gritty 49-ball 16 to eat up the overs left on the final reserve day.
India’s chances were also hampered by the lacklustre shows from Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah. While Ishant took 3 wickets in the first innings and had nothing to show for in the second, Bumrah was ineffectual for all the 37 overs he sent down in the match. Of course, he wasn’t helped after Cheteshwar Pujara dropped Ross Taylor at first slip towards the dying stages of the game.
MSK Prasad shed light on this very aspect, stating India’s bowling was always going to falter if the two best overseas bowlers didn’t rise to the occasion.
“Another factor that I want to bring up is our most important bowler in Bumrah, had he got few wickets along with Ishant and Shami, this question wouldn’t have aroused at all. If two of India’s best overseas bowlers have off days, then any guy can be off colour. You can’t expect two of your best bowlers to have off days,” the former India wicketkeeper said.
The star of the show, though, was Mohammed Shami. The 30-year-old made the old ball talk and ran through the New Zealand middle-order in the first essay, finishing with impressive figures of 4 for 76. But lack of support from the other end emboldened the Kiwi tail to wag and take a lead of 32 runs.
The curious case of Cheteshwar Pujara
Cheteshwar Pujara had a stellar tour Down Under when India became the first Asian team to beat Australia in their own backyard in 2018/19. The 33-year-old racked up 521 runs at an astounding average of 74.43 with three hundreds to boot. The third of which came in January 2019, a majestic 193 in Sydney.
Guess what? India’s batting ‘rock’ is yet to score another ton since. Pujara has played 30 innings and 18 Tests since, averaging 29.21 at the start of the WTC final. That number took some more beating after his poor show against the Black Caps.
The 23 runs (8 & 15) couldn’t justify the pedigree and importance Pujara brings to India's Test fold. But what majorly led to all the brickbats hurled at him was his rather slow run-rate. He took 35 balls to get off the mark in India's first innings before eventually ending with 8 off 54 balls – those came off two boundaries, meaning he failed to rotate the strike at all.
Quizzed about whether Pujara’s slow scoring rate put pressure on the batters around him, MSK Prasad opined there was no point crying over spilled milk and that the Indian team management should have made the objectives clear to him before the match.
“In Australian or Indian conditions, once the ball suffers wear and tear, you get bad balls. Whereas in English conditions, the ball generally swings a lot. So you have to design your own ways of getting runs, otherwise if you are stuck, it’ll put a little pressure at the other end. But that cannot be spoken now.
“We should know well in advance and we should have discussed early on these same things. After the match is over, there is no point of discussing that. If his strike-rate is not up to the mark, then the team management should convey to him what they are expecting. And if he is not living up to those expectations, then you should think something else,” MSK Prasad told Sportskeeda.
The ongoing chorus of jeers demands a shuffle in India’s middle-order, with Pujara copping the lion’s share of flak. Even Virat Kohli at the post-match media conference spoke about the need to “bring in the right people who have the right mindset to perform”.
But recalling the memorable Australia tour of 2018/19, MSK Prasad batted for the middle-order mainstay, stating it would be premature to write him off now and that any major change should be made only after the forthcoming five-Test series against England starting August 4.
“When we are talking about senior cricketers like Pujara, we shouldn’t hurry these decisions. Suddenly something happens and again you fall back on him, because he can at least play that solid innings from one end. So we shouldn’t jump into conclusions. Once we complete the five Test matches, then we should be talking. Let’s take one match at a time.
“Because you will get to understand certain things – whether someone is going downhill, whether someone is still an important figure – only at the conclusion of this Test series. People wrote him off even in Australia, but he came back and scored 500 odd runs in 2018. So you shouldn’t be emotional or be in a hurry against the players who have done so well for you in the past 7-8 years,” MSK Prasad, who played 6 Tests and 17 ODIs, reasoned.
If not overhauling the squad, players from the pool of 24 – who weren’t part of the final 15 for the WTC final – would at least have a bigger role to play during the long English summer.
KL Rahul was India’s second-highest run-getter on the 2018 UK sojourn; Mohammed Siraj’s lion-heartedness came to the fore in Australia earlier this year; Shardul Thakur is slowly growing into becoming India’s premier seam-bowling all-rounder – all these guys are ready to pounce on any given opportunity.
The Test series will be India’s first in the 2021-23 WTC cycle, and MSK Prasad believes any kind of addition and subtraction should be done only after including the performance of the next five Tests in the report card.
“It’s a long series. So many things will happen during the course of the series. In the 2018 series, he [KL Rahul] got a hundred. So he might stake claims, even Hanuma Vihari is waiting. If you want to build another WTC cycle team, then discuss this post the England series. On the other way round, whoever we’re talking about, if he suddenly rises to the occasion, considering the experience that they have, then what will happen?
“He [Shardul Thakur] will definitely come into the equation, there is no doubt about that. I even heard a couple of interviews where Bharath Arun and others were saying, ‘We also need our bowlers to bat a bit’. So Shardul is one of those answers and he is also a guy who can exploit those seaming conditions. Siraj is also in line for a place. What wrong has he done? He has bowled well on all decks – he bowled well in Australia and even in the one Test match he got against England, he did well. Umesh Yadav is there,” MSK Prasad explained.
Another effective method to fine-tune the arsenal is playing first-class games prior to the start of a series. MSK Prasad has always been vocal about arranging matches between India ‘A’ and the senior side.
“I originally thought that if England is offering us any county sides, we should have taken our India ‘A’ side. They have not been playing any matches and they could have played proper first-class matches with the senior team. That’s where New Zealand scored a little more than us. If we could have played three or four games with India ‘A’, then we could have unearthed some talents as well,” he mentioned.
However, the limited-overs Sri Lanka tour from July 13 meant the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had to send 25 of its players to the island nation. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) also failed to provide any games against the county sides, meaning India will again have to make do with intra-squad games before the high-octane series.
There would always be polarised opinions on whether Virat Kohli got his team combination right against New Zealand. But what remains to be seen is, how he can make use of India’s vaunted bench strength to tackle the multifarious English conditions.
“We shouldn’t even think of that” – MSK Prasad on removing Virat Kohli as India's Test captain
When it rained through Day 1 of the WTC final, legendary batsman Sunil Gavaskar was the first expert to suggest that India should tweak their already-announced playing XI and include a fourth seamer in place of one of the two spinners. That suggestion slowly snowballed into demand, with several fans and pundits echoing similar sentiments.
But Virat Kohli quashed all that noise at the toss the next day, stating it was India’s most balanced XI which doesn’t allow the weather and pitch to have a say on their performance. As it turned out, that statement didn’t quite hold water over the next five days.
But MSK Prasad believes the Indian captain might have assembled that line-up just for the summit clash and that he would be keen to delve deeper into his enlarged squad to find answers to combat England – both the weather and team.
“Maybe for that particular match, he would have said like that. Things can change. It’s going to be a long series, they’ll get plenty of situations, plenty of moments where they might change their thought process. They might as well feel it would be five hot days and they might stick with the same WTC final team.
“Or if they feel that the next days are going to be overcast, they might switch to four seamers and one spinner. It also depends on the opposition. To put everything in a nutshell, I’d want them to go with an open mind rather than preconceived notions. We need to back our team because, let’s not forget, this is the team that made us proud by getting into the final,” MSK Prasad stated.
What's more, fans have also been demanding that Virat Kohli be relieved of the Test captaincy. MSK Prasad, though, urged everyone to put those thoughts to bed, shedding light on how he has been one of the staunchest supporters of Test cricket and helped India remain a top side in the longest format.
“He’s the same guy who brought us to this level. I know he was not there on the Australia tour, but he has brought the team to the final. With the kind of passion that he brings to Test team, I don’t think we should be even thinking of that. Because it is his passion and true love for Test cricket that has really helped India become No. 1 and we started winning many away series also. So we shouldn’t even think of that,” he concluded.
India were dethroned from the top spot following the WTC final loss to New Zealand. Virat Kohli has now got a challenge on hand to help India win their first Test series in England in 14 years and also push them to the top of the ICC Test rankings.
Also read: Team India on their way to London, vacation mode on until July 14 [Exclusive]
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