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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Kohli's fitness concerns and time to pull Pant in: India talking points ahead of third Test

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil on what India need to do to save the five-match series against England at Trent Bridge

India's captain Virat Kohli's recent back troubles is a big problem not just from his career standpoint but also for India’s prospects of success in Test series against England. AFP
India's captain Virat Kohli's recent back troubles is a big problem not just from his career standpoint but also for India’s prospects of success in Test series against England. AFP

As the Indian cricket team prepare for the third Test, due to start at Trent Bridge on Saturday, there will be a feeling of despair in the camp.

Who can blame them?

They threw away an opportunity to go 1-0 up in the series opener at Edgbaston, then got crushed in the next game at Lord’s.

England’s bowlers were relentless in both Tests. But the tourists’ batting was just as awful, with Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin being the exceptions. And Ashwin is not even recognised as a specialist batsman – but more on that later.

So, what can Kohli do to drag his side out of the funk they find themselves in? Is the captain himself in any condition to play in Nottingham? Who is out, who is in?

Here are the talking points ahead of the third Test:

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Kohli, fit or not?

There is a great deal of expectation at home that Kohli will shatter every batting record there is before he retires. After all, he is yet to turn 30.

But the right-hander is walking like he has a burden to bear – literally. He is having trouble with his back, which is a big problem not just from his career standpoint but also for India’s prospects of success.

Kohli has taken too much upon himself and must consider a break at some point. He should do so after this series is over, or even earlier if India lose at Trent Bridge.

It might even shake some of the other batsmen back into form once responsibility is thrust upon them.

India's Murali Vijay looks back at the stumps after being bowled out by England's James Anderson for no runs on the second day of the second Test at Lord's. AFP
India's Murali Vijay looks back at the stumps after being bowled out by England's James Anderson for no runs on the second day of the second Test at Lord's. AFP

Opening conundrum

This is India’s big predicament, considering all three of their openers have struggled in England.

Murali Vijay’s pair at Lord’s could see him make way for Shikhar Dhawan, who had been dropped after Edgbaston. But to assume that Dhawan will magically start scoring runs again, on a pitch that is likely to be mean to batsmen with technical shortcomings, is like expecting Kohli to stop using profanity.

Hence, Vijay and Lokesh Rahul should be persisted with, and Cheteshwar Pujara should continue at No 3. Give them all one more game and gauge their response.

Ravichandran Ashwin is a genuine all-rounder who should occupy the sixth batting slot. AFP
Ravichandran Ashwin is a genuine all-rounder who should occupy the sixth batting slot. AFP

Ashwin’s position

There is no doubt Ashwin is a genuine all-rounder. He has scored 2,248 Test runs, including four centuries and 11 half-centuries, at an average of 30.37.

Yet the management does not seem keen to give him the traditional all-rounder’s position at No 6 on a permanent basis. That, or it worries about putting too much on his plate since he is also India’s strike bowler.

But if the selectors continue to pick six specialist batsmen, five specialist bowlers and a wicketkeeper, then Ashwin might as well be sent out at No 6. He has the technique, temperament and experience to make a more significant contribution with the bat.

Drop the idea if his bowling suffers, Mr Kohli, but at least give it a shot.

Rishabh Pant is understudy to wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik in India's Test squad. AFP
Rishabh Pant is understudy to wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik in India's Test squad. AFP

Get Pant in

This week the team management received a stern message from the Indian cricket board about their recent woeful batting performances.

Whether coach Ravi Shastri was being read the riot act or not, some batsmen will likely feel unsettled about their place in the side. And maybe it is time for fresh thinking.

For instance, Rishabh Pant deserves to be tried out.

Pant’s keeping skills are considered secondary to his batting abilities, and there is a worry he will not be tidy enough behind the stumps in a Test match setting. But there were similar doubts about MS Dhoni’s keeping, too, when he made his Test debut in 2005.

Pant is just 20 and will have a long career ahead of him should he choose to embrace the former India captain’s work ethic.

He is the squad as an understudy to Dinesh Karthik, who has struggled with the bat on this tour. This could be the right time to give him his first Test cap.

Kuldeep Yadav, centre, played and flopped in wet weather conditions.​​​​​​ at Lord's. Reuters
Kuldeep Yadav, centre, played and flopped in wet weather conditions.​​​​​​ at Lord's. Reuters

Revert to four seamers

India should not have picked Kuldeep Yadav at Lord’s.

His left-arm leg-spin was meant to come in handy before play on Day 1 was cancelled due to rain, which should have been a cue for the management to revert to a four-seamers-plus-one-spinner strategy before the toss.

But Kuldeep played and flopped in wet weather conditions.

With Trent Bridge almost certainly seamer-friendly, he should make way for the other Yadav in the squad: Umesh.

The fast bowler was underwhelming at Edgbaston, but he has the experience to come good in helpful conditions in the third Test.

India head coach Ravi Shastri, left, should find a way to inspire the team with tales of Indian great Ajit Wadekar, who died on Wednesday - India's Independence Day - age 77. Reuters
India head coach Ravi Shastri, left, should find a way to inspire the team with tales of Indian great Ajit Wadekar, who died on Wednesday - India's Independence Day - age 77. Reuters

Wadekar inspiration

Timing can be everything in life. Also, in death.

Ajit Wadekar, who in 1971 led India to their first ever Test series win in England, died on Wednesday at the age of 77 – on India’s Independence Day.

Wadekar, a hard-hitting batsman during his heyday, wore many hats for Indian cricket: player, captain, coach, selector and chairman of selectors.

It is unlikely that most of the current Indian players will have interacted with him, but their coach certainly did. Shastri, an excellent raconteur like Wadekar himself was, should find a way to inspire the team with tales from his fellow Mumbaikar’s life.

Who knows, it just might inspire a performance or two that could help the team to turn their fortunes around.

There could not be a more fitting tribute to Wadekar than an unlikely series win.

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