Kuldeep Yadav’s “second Test debut”, as the left-arm wrist-spinner described his return after two years in Chennai, was not nearly as gratifying as the first one. There was no magic or mystery, neither sorcery nor conjuring. He was the sideshow rather than the star, which he was in Dharamsala four years ago. His failings on a pitch where the ball burst through the black top-soil were cruelly exposed. His lack of pace was a curse, as was his inability to produce drift in the air or fizz off the surface.
Axar Patel sprinkled gloss on his debut with a five-for in the second innings, purchasing spitting turn by bowling at a brisker pace than Kuldeep. Later, Axar explained the strategy for success on such a wicket: “You had to vary the pace and bowl quicker on this wicket. The ball was not doing much when it was bowled slower through the air.”
The average speed of the spin triumvirate captured the story. Axar bowled at 91 kmph or thereabouts, Ravichandran Ashwin hovered around 85, deliciously shuffling his pace, and Kuldeep operated at 80. The lack of pace meant lack of bite. While the deliveries of Axar and Ashwin would explode off the surface like a vengeful landmine, Yadav’s would benignly hang in the air after pitching, affording time for batsmen to decide their response.
Not that Kuldeep didn’t try — in the second innings, he was intentionally quicker and more lethal — but his action is not hard-wired for a sudden upsurge of pace by four-five yards. Finger-spinners can impart more shoulder into the action without compromising on accuracy, undercut the ball to let it skid, but less so wrist-spinners. The best of them, like Shane Warne, could modulate their pace but Kuldeep is still uncut at the highest level.
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Hence, Kuldeep’s second debut could well be over, as the series heads to Ahmedabad. That the next Test would be played with the pink ball harms his prospects further. With the pink ball’s propensity to benefit seamers, besides the mandatory retention of 6mm grass on the surface for Day-Night Tests, a third spinner is utterly redundant. And on current form, if there is a toss-up between Axar and Kuldeep for the second spinner’s slot, the latter is the likelier to miss out.
Nonetheless, how India would assemble for the must-win Test — a defeat would snuff their World Test Championship hopes — would be intriguing. It could be a straight swap between Kuldeep and Jasprit Bumrah, who was rested for the second Chennai Test as part of workload management. A three-pronged pace attack is a necessity rather than an alternative.
Even two spinners may be inessential. In the only pink ball Test in India, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja bowled a combined seven overs. But England are not quite as brittle as Bangladesh, and given the difficulty of some of their batsmen to configure spin, employing two spinners is not an illogical ploy.
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Then given the English bowlers’ expertise with the pink ball, shoring up the batting by excluding a spinner is not an insensible tactic. More so if the inclusion is Hardik Pandya. The latter’s return to the team is a formality once he regains bowling fitness. But even just as a pure batsman, he brings a lot to the table. In distress, his counterpunching utility could be highly beneficial. In times of plenty, he could freewheel and hack some quick runs.
And if the ball indeed is hemming around and the mainstream bowlers require a breather, Pandya can put in a four-five-over shift, as a change-bowler to break partnerships. If the surface is sluggish, his cutters could be quite useful. Should Pandya return, it could be at Axar’s expense.
Then there is the remote possibility of a fast-bowling quartet, now that Umesh Yadav has been declared fit. Umesh has a stupendous record at home, but his inclusion would elongate the tail.
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Much depends on the re-laid Motera square. Historically, it has been on the slower side — the most successful bowler on the ground has been Anil Kumble, which clearly highlights the gift of pace modulation for spinners. Though the stadium has been revamped and boasts surfaces of three soil types (red, black and their mix), the inherent characteristic of the surface cannot be drastically altered. Neither can the weather. It’s pre-summer and the pitch could crack up as the game progresses, irrespective of the soil type.
So, it’s likelier that India would stick to their preferred three-pacer-two-spinner combination. What is certain though is that Kuldeep’s second debut does not seem destined for longevity.
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