Limited ability, coupled with consistent errors in team selection, culminated in an anticipated humiliation for India at the epicentre of cricket in Englands biggest county, Yorkshire, where the vistors were capitulated by an innings and 76 runs in the third Test against England on Saturday.
The win helped the hosts level the five-Test series 1-1, after the first match ended in a draw.
To exclude Ravichandran Ashwin, India’s premier spin bowler, from the side for three consecutive Tests, even after he looked threatening on a unhelpful, made-for-pacers pitch in the World Test Championship (WTC) final against New Zealand at Southampton in June, has been senseless.
It was understandable that Shardul Thakur was rested because of an injury in the second Test at Lord’s that India won. He ought to have been recalled for the just-concluded third encounter, since he is the only natural swing bowler in the Indian squad. And movement in the air, more often than not, plays a critical part in English conditions.
Ishant Sharma, who took Thakur’s place, is normally not fit enough beyond a couple of Tests these days. In this series, he didn’t even survive that long. He lumbered up stiffly to be an easy picking for the English batsmen.
Rishabh Pant’s batting in the past four Tests has appeared to indicate that he’s not interested when the going is tough, such as having to tackle a Duke ball with a pronounced seam in English conditions.
He has easy money in the IPL to fall back on. So, the attitude seems to be, ‘it doesn’t matter if he fails for country’!
The return of Ashwin is necessary. To stubbornly ignore this reality will only perpetuate peril for India.
When the Indian quicks failed to extract life from the wicket while the English batsmen batted, Ashwin could possibly have induced indiscretion with his flight and variety. Ravindra Jadeja’s flat trajectory and insignificant turn reinforced that he cannot be picked as the only spinner in the playing XI.
In addition to bolstering the slow bowling department with Ashwin, India must seriously consider dropping Pant and handing wicket-keeping duties to K.L. Rahul and bringing in a specialist batsman at number six. It will be a hard ask for whoever enters the fray, because of an absence of match practice for the bench for over a month. But either Hanuma Vihari or Mayank Agarwal should be drafted in.
Besides, one would hope Thakur is a shoe-in, given Ishant Sharma’s disappointing display. If fresh legs are demanded, Umesh Yadav should also enter the frame.
The three batsmen on whom India pinned their hopes on the fourth morning, all arguably departed to misjudgements, albeit Ollie Robinson in particular and James Anderson made life difficult with the second new ball.
Cheteshwar Pujara padded up to an incoming ball. Virat Kohli was deceived by a delivery that left him – he expected it to come in – while Ajinkya Rahane could perhaps have withheld his willow.
India had lost Tests at Headingley in 1952, 1959 and 1967. Thereafter, they redeemed themselves with victories in 1986 and 2002. Now, after a spineless showing, the situation is back to square one.
The next Test is at The Oval where the wicket could be drier. The final meeting is at Old Trafford, Manchester, Anderson’s home ground, where the surface could once again suit him.
(Senior cricket writer Ashis Ray is a broadcaster and author of the book ‘Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge’)