“If your top six or seven don’t do the job, that extra batter is no guarantee of bailing you out”
With two collapses – 78 all out in the first innings and eight wickets for 63 in the second – bookending India’s innings defeat at Headingley, there have been suggestions, not all post-facto either – that India should play six specialist batters and that their bowling unit is good enough to take the 20 wickets without a fifth bowler. But Virat Kohli has practically ruled that combination out, saying he doesn’t believe in that plan, and never has.
“I don’t believe in that balance,” Kohli said at the post-match press conference on Saturday. “I have never believed in that balance. Because either you can try to save a defeat or try to win the game. We have drawn games in the past with similar number of batters in the team. So, if your top six or seven don’t do the job, that extra batter is no guarantee of bailing you out every time.
“You have to accept that as a team you take responsibility and pride in doing the job for the team. If you don’t have the ability or the resources of taking 20 wickets going into as Test, then you are only playing for two results. And that’s not how we play.”
Although MS Dhoni had toyed with the idea of five bowlers – Stuart Binny the fifth – in his last full tour as captain, Kohli made it almost a policy as he had Hardik Pandya at his disposal. Once Pandya was out injured, Kohli went back to four bowlers and won the tour of Australia in 2018-19. He began the 2020-21 tour as well with four bowlers before Ajinkya Rahane went back to playing five bowlers. However, that fifth bowler, Ravindra Jadeja, was not fit for Adelaide, so that might have been a reason.
Now, within the combination of five batters and five bowlers, there is another combination: three fast bowlers or four. India began this trip of England by picking three quicks and two spinners for the World Test Championship final, but since then they have been fixated on the idea of four fast bowlers. Kohli told Michael Atherton at the post-match presentation that if the pitch in the remaining Tests have enough assistance for fast bowlers, 4-1 would be the likely combination.
“That depends on the pitch,” Kohli said. “We have to obviously assess the surface that we are going to play on. Forecast is something that no one really knows in this country. It all depends on the pitch.
“I think this template works. If you are consistent enough, the pressure from the fourth seamer, especially when you lose the toss and you have to bowl first, that comes in very handy because when you have two spinners you can only attack with three seamers and then the spinners are into play on a fresh wicket on Day 1.”
With three back-to-back Tests deciding the series, you can be all but sure that India will rotate the fast bowlers even if they decide to play four of them. “That’s bound to happen,” Kohli said. “It is a logical and sensible thing to do. You obviously don’t want to push individuals to a point where they break down. That conversation is very important. Very sensible and logical one at that as well.
“We will have that conversation with individuals and see who is placed where physically and who needs to have a game off. You can’t expect with a short turnaround like this for guys to play four Tests in a row. So, we will have to assess who are the guys who will be given that many days to recover and be okay for the fourth one.”
The likely candidate to be rested for The Oval might be Ishant Sharma, who looked off colour, down on pace and slow in his run-up at Headingley. Kohli was asked if he had a niggle or an injury. He said there were “no issues whatsoever”. “I am obviously not watching his run-up,” Kohli said. “I am standing in the slips, so I have to watch the bat of the batter. So I am not analysing how he [Sharma] is moving on the field. I think he moved similar to the last game. There were no issues whatsoever.”
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo