Creating a Plan for India to Beat England in 5th Test and Level Series
Just 21 days ago, MS Dhoni's India ripped through a feeble England on the final afternoon at Lord's, riding an unforgettable spell from Ishant Sharma to grab both a 95-run victory in the second Test and what seemed like a firm grip on the series.
Now India find themselves staring at a 2-1 deficit after consecutive defeats, the second of which was an appalling thrashing at Old Trafford that saw Dhoni's side hammered by an innings inside three days.
Having lost every session across two Tests since the historic triumph in London, the tourists must now find a way to secure a series-levelling victory in the fifth encounter at the Oval.
Across the following slides, we examine what India must do to reverse the tide that has turned savagely against them amid something of a renaissance for Alastair Cook's side.
Promote Ajinkya Rahane to Opener
Ajinkya Rahane is an opener by trade currently being used to strengthen India's middle order.
However, with the tourists' batting lineup collapsing in alarming fashion in Southampton and Manchester, MS Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher must look to get those with some degree of form as high in the order as possible to arrest the consistent fall of early wickets.
Indeed, Rahane and Murali Vijay are the only two Indian batsmen averaging more than 40 in the series, also appearing to be the only pair capable of dealing with England's new-ball duo of James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
With Gautam Gambhir desperately short of match practice and Shikhar Dhawan enduring a miserable tour, Rahane must be promoted to join Vijay at the top.
Shift Shikhar Dhawan Down to No. 5
If Ajinkya Rahane is promoted to the top of the order to join Murali Vijay, the No. 5 slot will need to be filled by either Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma or Shikhar Dhawan.
For Gambhir, the shift down to No. 5 would be a difficult one, given that he's 32 years of age and has built an international existence as an opener.
Sharma, meanwhile, once again displayed the recklessness and concentration lapses at the Ageas Bowl that threaten to stall his career, likely ruling him out of contention.
Thus, Dhawan is the only logical option to fill the middle-order slot.
Of course, the left-hander has suffered a difficult series, watching his technique succumb to England's seamers in the opening three Tests of the campaign.
But a shift down to No. 5 would shield Dhawan from the new ball, possibly allowing his match-winning abilities as an aggressive stroke-maker to resurface, thereby applying pressure to the home side's bowlers and Alastair Cook's captaincy during the middle overs.
Recall Ishant Sharma If He's Fit
Ishant Sharma's absence for the third and fourth Tests has severely hurt the potency and experience of MS Dhoni's attack.
While Pankaj Singh has performed admirably and gone unrewarded for some nice spells, Ishant—when in the sort of mood witnessed at Lord's—remains India's most threatening option with the ball.
Should he prove his fitness for the final outing at the Oval, the right-armer should join Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Varun Aaron to form Dhoni's seam trio, with Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja shouldering the spinning duties.
In such a scenario, the visitors would field the four most impressive bowlers residing in the touring squad, in addition to a useful all-rounder in Jadeja.
Re-Think the Strategy Against Moeen Ali
That only James Anderson has more wickets in this series than Moeen Ali is certainly reflective of the 27-year-old's rapid development in England's Test side this summer.
However, Moeen's 19 wickets are also an indictment on India's porous approach against the inexperienced tweaker, especially when you consider that the tourists should be—theoretically, at least—the finest players of spin in the game.
Rattled from Moeen's six-wicket haul at the Ageas Bowl, MS Dhoni's men became timid against the off-spinner at Old Trafford, poking and prodding from the crease as he developed a rhythm on the third afternoon.
While Moeen's consistency has improved with every Test, he remains only a moderate turner of the ball.
Thus, on a fresh, first-innings pitch at the Oval, India's batsmen should possess the ability to sensibly attack the off-spinner, using their feet and the depth of the crease to upset the Englishman's length.
What must change when attacking, however, is India's shot selection, discarding the aerial route that has thoughtlessly been pursued all too often.
Attack England's 3rd and 4th Seamers
So far in this series, England have used Liam Plunkett, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan as the third and fourth options behind James Anderson and Stuart Broad at various stages.
But which duo England decide upon for the fifth Test at the Oval is of no consequence to India, as they simply have no choice but to target Alastair Cook's backup seamers.
Unable to decipher Anderson's riddle and overwhelmed by an inspired Broad at Old Trafford, MS Dhoni's men must look to punish those following the hosts' spearheads, placing greater pressure on Cook to consistently return to his primary options again and again.
Of the backup quartet, only Stokes has claimed his wickets at less than 40 runs apiece, with Jordan and Woakes handing in underwhelming performances in the last two Tests.
If India's stroke-makers in Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan can get on top of those men at the Oval, the sheer volume of work for Anderson and Broad can only hamper their threat.
MS Dhoni Must Abandon the Conservatism
The most recent pair of Tests has seen MS Dhoni complete some perplexing exhibitions of captaincy, consistently opting for conservatism when challenged by England.
Also disappointing has been the skipper's use of his bowling rotations, regularly letting the home side escape the pressure of the early overs of new sessions by using his third, fourth and sometimes fifth options immediately after lunch and tea.
That all needs to change at the Oval.
In order to level the series, Dhoni must acknowledge that a suddenly surging home side are unlikely to hand over the initiative, meaning the visitors must forcibly rip the momentum from their grasp.
The Indian captain, therefore, needs to attack, using his primary options as a pair in critical passages, maintaining his slips and catching men whenever possible, while refraining from pushing men back as soon as England find a groove.
If his side are beaten by a superior opponent, so be it. But Dhoni can't allow England to cruise to a series victory unchallenged at the Oval.
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