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By Chetan Narula
Manchester: Aug 6, 2014
With lingering disappointment of an unfavourable verdict in the James Anderson fracas, India go into the fourth Test against England facing a selection dilemma on whether to leave out a couple of out-of-form players or give them one last opportunity.
With their backs to the wall after a ‘double blow’ last week when they were soundly thrashed by 266 runs in the third Test followed by ICC appointed Judicial Commissioner’s verdict declaring Anderson ‘not guilty’, it will be redemption time for Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys as they hope to get their acts together at the Old Trafford.
The team management might look at a couple of changes in the side with chances of veteran opener Gautam Gambhir and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin making it to the team as Shikhar Dhawan’s poor form and Rohit Sharma’s atrocious shot selection might bring down the axe on the duo.
Although the series is levelled 1-1, poor on-field performance and losig a battle off the field have left the team in a vulnerable state.
It would be helpful if they also draw some inspiration from the 2007-08 tour to Australia. It was the last time an Indian cricketer was involved in a fracas that involved ‘Level 3 offence.
Albeit matters had become more serious back then, including a threat to call off the tour, the political undertones this time around are considerably muted.
However, Dhoni will like to emulate erstwhile captain Anil Kumble, who had led from the front, not only making a dignified off-field stand but also marshalling his troops well on-field, leading the side to a memorable 72-run win at Perth.
In supporting Jadeja, even refusing to be placated by efforts of both the BCCI and the ECB, Dhoni has done the necessary bit off-the-field. Now he needs to get it right inside the boundary ropes, for that is what the series is all about.
Seven years down the line, everyone does recall the Andrew Symonds-Harbhajan Singh controversy, but the score-line nevertheless read that Australia beat India 2-1. A similar defeat here will make the worst possible reading for Dhoni’s overseas Test report-card that is already quite overloaded with embarrassing losses since 2011.
The answer to his troubles can also be found in that 2007-08 series. At Trent Bridge and Lord’s, India had deployed five bowlers ? a strategy last deployed overseas at Adelaide in that same series.
With a draw and a win at Trent Bridge and Lord’s respectively, it can be argued that this ploy was worked wonders for India. The argument holds water because on a flat track at Southampton, their seven front-line batsmen could only manage 330 and 178 in two innings.
With the series crucially poised, it begs for a strategic rethink. Rohit Sharma’s inconsistency has led the team down at crucial junctures. With his poor shot-selection at the Ageas Bowl, he proved the adage that a seventh batsman cannot do what the first six couldn’t.
But it can be argued that a fifth bowler there might have made a huge difference, especially if he was a spinner.
The case for Ashwin to play his first Test of the series couldn’t be stronger. India are looking for an extra-batsman and he has two Test hundreds to his name. As a second spin option, Dhoni will always use him for more than the 20-odd overs Stuart Binny bowled in the two matches he played.
Not to mention, Ashwin has also stood at first slip for India until he was dropped mid-way through the Test series in South Africa.
This catching bit is important because the third Test was lost more due to dropped catches than insipid batting and undisciplined bowling. Also, because Shikhar Dhawan handles first-slip duties currently, and he hasn’t performed his primary duty ? score runs.
The gap between his first two Test hundreds was seven innings and it has been seven innings again since he crossed the 50-run mark. That however is a poor conversion rate for an opening batsman, and the think-tank will be flirting with the idea of giving Gautam Gambhir a try.
Even so, it isn’t the only forced-change that Dhoni and coach Duncan Fletcher will be considering. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been steadily building up his fitness but any final calls will be deferred until toss-time.
Varun Aaron looks eager to do Test duty once again, but will he still be in contention if Bhuvneshwar is fully fit? If so, Pankaj Singh might be the unlucky one to miss out, because he shouldn’t be dropped on debut figures of 0-179 alone.
There are two other positions that will be cause for concern, but there aren’t any replacements available for them.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have been India’s bet for the future but they have both come unstuck.
The latter has been jousting with some clever English bowling and field-settings, and so far has been unable to break-through. He averages a dismal 16.83 in three Tests so far.
Pujara averages slightly better in comparison, 31.66 so far on account of his one fifty at Nottingham, but that is poor by his standards.
He is someone who likes to bat for long periods and that score of 55 at Trent Bridge is his longest stay at the wicket in 11 innings (since the Durban Test in December). It is tough to comprehend, though, whose form is a bigger worry for India and indeed atleast one of them must score big from here onward if India are to win this series.
Meanwhile, England are in cruise mode. Their win at Southampton, a first one in 11 Tests, was so comfortably dominant that they ticked all the performance-boxes possible.
Their star batsmen Alastair Cook and Ian Bell got runs, Cook the captain also got all his moves right, Stuart Broad bowled with threatening pace again, Chris Woakes seemed to play an ideal second-fiddle to their senior bowlers and Moeen Ali proved a handy spinner against Indian batsmen.
As if to add insult to injury, they still have Anderson available. Any ICC revision of the verdict is unlikely to impact the remainder of the Test series.
The fast bowler, with two man-of-the-match performances in the last three Tests for his contributions with both bat and ball, will be raring to go at his home ground. And India have to contend with him now without any external aids.
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