Six days after a historic win at Lord’s, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s India travel to Southampton on the southern coast for the third Test of their five-match series against England.
Three years since their last Test win overseas, India—via an utterly dominating performance in conditions that were supposedly tailor-made for the home side—finally proved that they haven’t yet forgotten how to win away from home, after failed attempts in England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
India’s win—their first at Lord’s since 1986—was achieved on the back of numerous individual performances. Ajinkya Rahane, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Murali Vijay, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma and the captain himself were all protagonists of the victory, highlighting a prolific team effort.
However, after the euphoria has settled, the Indians would sit back and chart their next move, with the series far from over. While the aforementioned players were very good, there were some who have raised concerns over the length of the two Test matches played so far.
The most glaring warning light emanates from Stuart Binny, the 29-year-old all-rounder who was picked at both Trent Bridge and Lord’s for his seam-bowling ability, which was supposed to thrive in English conditions.
At Trent Bridge, on a track that had less life in it than a morgue, Binny was used for all of 10 overs out of 145 bowled by the Indians. If you thought that was a one-off, he was given exactly the same number of overs at Lord’s on a pitch that definitely had something for the bowlers through all five days.
The writing was on the wall when Dhoni did not trust Binny’s medium pace with even a single over in England’s second innings, with India defending a not-too-large total.
As for his batting, if he was a hero at Trent Bridge for a gritty 78 on Test debut, he was as much a villain at Lord’s for failing to cross over to double figures in either innings. If that wasn’t a death knell, the shot he played to get out in the second innings, when India needed him to stick it out, certainly was.
If a player who is selected in the side as an all-rounder is bowled for just 20 overs over two Test matches, he is wasting a valuable spot in the team. Seeing as how the Lord’s pitch behaved, and Southampton likely to produce a similar one, that spot would more be suited to someone like off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
Jadeja’s left-arm orthodox spin-bowling at Lord’s, where he was a constant threat to the English batsmen, especially in the second innings as he exploited the fast-bowlers’ footmarks, begs the inclusion of a genuine spinner in India’s XI. It could also be argued that Ashwin is a better and more responsible batsman than Binny.
The other weak link in India’s bowling line-up has been Mohammed Shami. After impressing so much on flat tracks in India against the West Indies in his debut series, Shami eight months later appears to have become a victim of the rigorous schedule that an Indian player has to participate in.
The 24-year-old quick, who used to effortlessly bowl in the 140s, has lost not only his pace, but also his ability to find the right line and length.
Shami has been guilty of bowling too short and often drifting down the leg, thereby giving away easy runs to the English batsmen. Such was his struggle, he could not even get assistance from a generous surface at Lord’s.
India’s 18-man squad for this series includes as many as seven bowlers who are not spinners, so Dhoni has plenty of options to choose from. The first name on the list would seem to be Varun Aaron, India’s fastest bowler in recent times.
Not only is Aaron genuinely quick, but he is also tall and a hit-the-deck bowler. We all know what happened the last time a lanky pacer pitched it short at Alastair Cook’s men.
Ishant Sharma in the mid-130s drew comparisons with Mitchell Johnson during that destructive five-over spell at Lord’s. Imagine that with a boost of at least 10 kilometres per hour.
Aaron bowling on a green-top track is a lip-smacking prospect if you’re a fan of unabashed fast bowling. The 24-year-old does have a reputation of being erratic, inconsistent and injury-prone, but it would be a waste if he is not even given at least one game to prove otherwise.
Moving up the order, Virat Kohli is going through a nightmare patch, having scored just 34 runs in four innings. Only Ishant Sharma and Ben Stokes have scored lesser from both teams.
However, Kohli's form shouldn't be ringing any alarms yet, given his talent and past record. He was in terrific touch in South Africa and New Zealand, scoring a century and a fifty in both countries.
If there was anything alarming, it was his dismissal in the second innings at Lord's when he failed to judge the line of the ball bowled by Liam Plunkett and was bowled without offering a shot.
Just moments before, the broadcasters showed him practicing leaving deliveries in the nets, which is quite against his natural stroke-making style. It would do him well if he just trusted his instincts and played naturally.
Opener Shikhar Dhawan is another Indian batsman who is struggling, having scored just 79 runs in four innings, 31 of which came in his last innings.
Since his spectacular debut last March, where he scored the fastest century by a Test debutant, Dhawan's form in the longer format appears to have fizzled.
He struggled with the pace of the fast bowlers and the surface in South Africa. His natural aggressiveness, which has flourished in the limited overs matches, has been caught in the headlights in Tests.
With Gautam Gambhir waiting on the bench, dropping Dhawan seems an obvious option, but it would be too early to do so. For all his floundering in South Africa, he did prove his grit in New Zealand where he scored a century and a 98 in conditions not too different from England.
Dhawan was looking good during the second innings at Lord's and had twitchily, but successfully, maneuvered England's pacers for a 45-ball 31 before a spectacular catch by Joe Root at point sent him packing.
India should give him at least one more chance, at Southampton, before considering bringing Gambhir in.
So, Binny and Shami out, Ashwin and Aaron in, would be the ideal changes Dhoni should consider for the third Test. The Indian skipper doesn't usually like messing with a winning combination, but this would be the best time to see what the others in his squad have to offer.