Here’s the logic. If you win, you keep the same team and if you lose, you change it. Ain’t broke, don’t fix. Well, that was the case for the vast majority of the history of sports, and in cricket, probably more than in any other sport. Form trumped fatigue every time.
In the last decade or so, squad rotation has taken a hold at the top level of soccer and it’s highly unlikely that any player, even the best player, will feature in every game. (Since you’re asking, only 15 players played every minute of every game in the Premier League
England, uniquely it seems among cricketing nations, have very much taken rotation to heart. Broad and Anderson have been swapping one place, as have Archer and Wood, while Ben Stokes has also been given time off to rest. Given their preeminence in the 50-over format, their desire to win the upcoming 20-over World Cup and playing more Tests than anyone else in the last few years, it makes sense. But this isn’t a column about England.
The question of rotation, or even who constitutes is India’s best XI, is one that lies wide, wide open. India just pulled off one of the greatest victories in their long Test history, but with half a team. A host of new stars were made, but old faces will return and, of course, they have as tough a workload as England do, too.
Only two of the players who began in Adelaide in December were on the field a week ago in Brisbane, Cheteshwar Pujara and captain Ajinkya Rahane. Injuries enforced a level of rotation that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would never have countenanced.
It’s hard to imagine Virat Kohli taking two Tests off, as Ben Stokes has done during England’s current tour to Sri Lanka. Including Kohli, India’s best batsman, two best spinners, two best all rounders and three best fast bowlers all failed to make it to Brisbane.
Of the stars that day at the Gabba, Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Shubman Gill, Mohamad Siraj and Thangarasu Natarajan were either debutants or relative newbies. Now, they have as much a reason to expect a place in the team, or at least the squad, as anyone. How India fits them all in is the big issue. Of the new players, Sundar and Gill are 21 and could take a back seat knowing that their time may yet come, but the others are 26 or older. They need to play.
There is an obvious answer to all of this. Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill have done enough to continue opening, Pujara and Rahane played every game, Rishabh Pant was the man of the match and Virat Kohli is back, so there’s your batters. Jasprit Bumrah is the attack leader, Ravi Ashwin should be back and Mohamed Siraj lead the attack with aplomb, so there’s three more. That leaves just two places.
India’s squad, announced yesterday, posed more questions than it answers. Ishant Sharma is there, having not traveled to Australia. He’s closing in on 100 Tests for India and you can’t see a world where he doesn’t play a part. Hardik Pandya is one of the most destructive hitters on Earth, and adds a bowling option (like England’s Ben Stokes, he is listed solely as a batter, but expect that to change if things are going wrong). KH Rahul is back for the second Test at the earliest. Where he fits in remains to be seen.
Kuldeep Yadav can’t be far away either, especially in home conditions that should suit spin. Axar Patel is waiting in the wings for a debut and Washington Sundar more than impressed in Brisbane. While India’s traditional turning pitches might be a thing of the past, and fast bowling now a strength rather than a weakness, it would play heavily into England’s strengths if spin took a back seat.
Dom Bess and Jack Leach are nowhere near the standard of Yadav or Ashwin and England would love it if India prepared pitches that allowed them to play one spinner and chuck in an extra seam option, especially if that got the old guard of Stuart Broad and James Anderson on at the same time.
What all this amounts to is an incredibly harsh reality. Some established Indian stars will have to sit at least some of the series out, some of the new names will find themselves miles away from the team again, and some of the not-established, but still well-known figures will miss out without really doing anything wrong. Hanuma Vihari and Mayunk Agarwal in particular did exactly what was asked of them for the team. We’ve not even mentioned Mohammed Shami, Bhuvi Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja, who are all still injured.
It’s a good problem to have, for sure, but one that India must manage skilfully. After four Tests in Australia and four at home to England, they will play 5 T20s, 3 One Day Internationals, followed by another edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) that will see their players decamp to a bubble for another six weeks. There’s also a four Test series in England and then a home T20 World Cup in the late summer and autumn. It’s a lot of bubbles, a lot of cricket and a lot of stress on their players.
England’s approach to rotation is designed to have all their players at top capacity, even if that means some of them sitting out from time to time. India might have to look into it to make the most of their undoubtedly huge resources.
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