With Jasprit Bumrah all but ruled out of the final Test in Brisbane starting on Friday, Shardul Thakur could be included in the playing XI. T Natarajan, too, remains an option as a replacement, but Thakur’s experience in first-class cricket gives him the edge.
An injury-ravaged Indian team has limited options in terms of picking replacements for the series-deciding final Test.
Apart from Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja is ruled out due to a left-thumb dislocation, while Hanuma Vihari’s hamstring strain makes him uncertain, with the team management waiting for his medical update. Jadeja is the team’s only genuine allrounder and a like-for-like replacement is not available. Washington Sundar, who stayed back in Australia after the limited-overs series, could be drafted in.
Although the BCCI hasn’t communicated anything officially as yet, it is learnt that Bumrah is nursing an abdominal strain, an injury he suffered during the third Test in Sydney. Sources said, an update on his fitness is expected in a day or two but the medical assessment wasn’t very positive. Thakur has played only one Test yet – in October 2018 against the West Indies in Hyderabad. He hobbled off the field after bowling just 1.4 overs in the first innings.
However, the Mumbai seamer has been a regular in white-ball internationals and remained in the selectors’ scheme of things for the longer format. An established pace quartet of Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav barely leaves any vacancy when all of them are fully fit. In an extended Test squad for the series in Australia, Mohammed Siraj and Navdeep Saini were preferred ahead of him, while Thakur was added after the first Test as the injured Shami’s replacement. But now that Bumrah is injured, he is the only bowler in India’s depleted pace pack in Australia who can swing the ball both ways and also can reverse it. Siraj is predominantly an inswing bowler, while Saini hits the deck hard and has the ability to make the odd ball straighten.
Shardul Thakur vs T Natarajan
Thakur is a domestic cricket thoroughbred with 206 wickets from 62 first-class matches. He bowls at a decent pace, around 135kph, and has the ability to carry on for long spells.
Natarajan, on the other hand, will be the sentimental favourite, given the hardship he faced while growing up. The 29-year-old went to Australia as a net bowler and made a seamless progression to white-ball internationals. He was India’s highest wicket-taker in the T20Is series, bagging six scalps in three matches. However, as far as red-ball cricket is concerned, Natarajan is still an unknown quantity. To start with, his first-class career is still at its formative stage with just 20 matches so far. He thrives on yorkers and slower deliveries in the shorter formats, but Test cricket demands swing, variations and the ability to bowl long spells.
“Test cricket is not easy. Not many of these slower balls and yorkers are going to be effective as far as Test cricket is concerned. And I don’t think that at his pace (around 130kph), bouncers could be a (wicket-taking) option,” Natarajan’s state team (Tamil Nadu) coach Diwakar Vasu told this paper before the third Test.
Dilip Vengsarkar, though, spoke about the advantage of having Natarajan. “A left-arm seamer, bowling over the wicket and creating the angle will be different. Three right-arm fast bowlers at times can become a tad one-dimensional,” he told The Indian Express. As things stand, it’s a toss-up between Thakur and Natarajan.
His absence upsets the entire balance. Left-arm spin is Jadeja’s forte, but he has improved his batting enough to get into the side as a specialist batsman. Over the last three years, Jadeja’s Test batting average is north of 55 in 16 matches. The team management had enough faith in Jadeja as a batsman even in Australian conditions, which he repaid in the second Test in Melbourne, scoring 57 in the first innings and having a game-turning 121-run partnership with captain Ajinkya Rahane. Jadeja’s presence guaranteed quality batting at No.7 apart from his top-class spin bowling.
To provide option, the BCCI might include Washington Sundar in the Test squad, like it brought in Natarajan before the third Test. Sundar, an off-spinner and a decent batsman, stayed back in Australia after the limited-overs series. He has been attending the nets and 21-year-old from Tamil Nadu is said to be on the team management’s radar as Jadeja’s replacement. Sundar has a century and two fifties in 12 first-class matches and also 30 wickets.
Kuldeep Yadav is in the squad, offering variety through his left-arm chinaman, if India opt for a specialist spinner alongside Ravichandran Ashwin. Then again, the Gabba boasts of the fastest pitch in Australia at the moment and there’s a school of thought that going with two spinners on a surface, expected to be tailor-made for the pacers, would be a mistake. Vengsarkar has a different view. “Kuldeep is a wrist-spinner and playing him won’t be a bad idea, for extra bounce will come to his aid,” said the former India captain who also served as the BCCI’s chief selector.
Hanuma Vihari uncertain
He could barely move between the wickets during his 161-ball blockathon at the SCG and Vihari has a race against time, with the final Test commencing in three days.
Mayank Agarwal suffered a knock at the nets but he is likely to be OK. Agarwal makes the Indian batting reserve bench in Australia, along with Prithvi Shaw – both specialist openers. The team, though, has a reliable opening pair in Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill. Rohit, originally a middle-order batsman in the longer format, has adjusted himself brilliantly at the top. His average opening the innings is 79.25, including two centuries and a double hundred. In Sydney, coming back from an injury layoff, he got a start in the first innings and scored a half-century in the second. His batting position is unlikely to be altered.
That leaves the team management to try Agarwal in the middle-order, but Vengsarkar doesn’t back the idea. “It’s difficult for a specialist opener to bat in the middle-order. The mindset is different, as also the approach, and it’s difficult to make the adjustment at such short notice,” he said, adding that Pant playing as a specialist batsman and Saha keeping wickets could be an option. Saha has three centuries and five fifties in Test cricket, but his inconsistency with the bat remains a concern.
R Ashwin’s availability
Ashwin is not someone who easily throws in the towel. He played through pain during his memorable 128-ball 39 not out in Sydney on Monday. Three years ago against England in Southampton, the off-spinner braved a hip injury and bowled nearly 52 overs. In fact, people came to know about his back injury only after Ashwin’s wife Prithi posted a tweet, mentioning the injury, at the end of the third Test.
The Indian team management, it is learnt, is pretty hopeful that Ashwin will play in Brisbane. He has been bowling beautifully in the ongoing series, accounting for 12 wickets in three Tests at 28.83. In case he is ruled out, then Kuldeep remains the only spin option.
7 batters or 5 bowlers
Australia haven’t lost a Test at fortress Gabba since 1988. Still, Vengsarkar wants India to go with five bowlers, Jadeja’s unavailability notwithstanding.
“The problem with four bowlers is that if someone gets injured during the game, you are reduced to just three specialist bowlers. Any injury is unfortunate and Jadeja will be missed. But there’s no point brooding over it. You have to pick a winning combination from the options available and I’m sure that the team is also thinking that way. Going with five bowlers has served the team well.”
Likely XI: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant, Hanuma Vihari/Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Kuldeep Yadav/Washington Sundar, Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur/T Natarajan