India lead 2-1 but have an uphill task to clinch the rubber when the contest resumes in the fifth Test at Edgbaston on Thursday. A resurgent England side, which hammered New Zealand 3-0 in the recently concluded series, will not be easy to overcome, particularly with the Indian team still looking unsettled.
K L Rahul is unavailable because of a surgery he had to undergo, and Rohit Sharma has had to face a double assault from Covid since the team landed in England. Their absence would be a double whammy for India in such an important match.
Both openers had been outstanding performers in the four Tests played last year before the series had been called off because of Covid alarms in the Indian camp. Their absence would rob India of an established opening pair, as well as batsmen who have rich overseas experience.
Rohit’s would be a more serious loss and it is not difficult to understand why chief coach Rahul Dravid has deferred from taking a decision on him till the last minute. Not only has Rohit been India’s outstanding Test batsman in the past three years years (actually, he’s been the best across formats), he is also captain with an excellent track record. In both roles, there’s no one who matches him in stature, which is what has put Dravid and the team management in a quandary.
Who could lead India in Rohit’s absence? Theoretically, there are a few players who could be given the assignment but it comes with caveats attached in all cases.
Virat Kohli, India’s most experienced and successful captain, would have been an obvious choice had he not given up the captaincy of his own volition last season to focus on his batting.
Since he has still not been able to overcome the slump in form – which started way back in 2019 and continues – whether burdening him with the captaincy at this piquant stage in his career is highly questionable. India’s greater need from Kohli now is runs. On the field, his captaincy experience is always available for whoever is in charge. But anything that could affect his batting would be detrimental to team interest.
Young Rishabh Pant has been spoken off as a future captain. He’s had middling success leading Delhi Capitals in the IPL, and didn’t do a bad job leading India in the T20 home series against South Africa. But his own form took a beating in the latter series, which the Indian team can ill afford in this Test. Pant is too valuable a player to be saddled with this onus in the current situation.
Shreyas Iyer, Mayank Agarwal, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are players of fairly vast experience at the international level, and also have captaincy experience in first class and IPL matches, but without any great measure of success in the leadership role. Agarwal and Jadeja in fact couldn’t live up to reputation as players too when saddled with the captaincy in IPL22.
In this turmoil, Jasprit Bumrah has emerged as frontrunner to take over the captaincy in the event of Rohit Sharma not recovering in time to play the Test. Bumrah’s had a remarkable career so far. Starting off as a young pace trio with an awkward action who was spotted by talent scouts of Mumbai Indians. He made an instant impact in the IPL and was fast-tracked into the Indian team for white ball cricket.
But his unorthodox action was thought unsustainable in red-ball cricket by most experts.
Fortunately for Bumrah, skipper Virat Kohi and then chief coach Ravi Shastri, punted on him as a Test bowler, played him against South Africa in 2017-18, and the lanky speedster hasn’t looked back since.
Widely regarded as among the top 4-5 bowlers in the world in all formats today, Bumrah is also talked of as a cerebral, thinking cricketer who enjoys being in the leadership role. All these qualities favour Bumrah’s appointment as captain in Rohit’s absence, but whether this responsibility will affect his bowling is something that will be playing on Dravid’s mind. As in Kohli’s case, where runs from him are more important than his being captain, the team’s priority would be for Bumrah to take wickets and win the match over all else.
Finding a captain, and also a playing XI with depth and balance in batting and bowling, are the obvious challenges Dravid faces before the toss. Fortunately, the squad, even if it misses K L Rahul, and possibly Rohit, has no dearth of talent.
In any case, picking the captain and playing XI is the lesser concern in my opinion. The other, and in the present circumstances bigger, is how to stop this revitalized England side from winning the Test and squaring the series.
The whitewash of New Zealand showcased the amazing transformation England have undergone in the past few weeks. In each of the three Tests, New Zealand got into a winning position, only to be overwhelmed, either by England’s batsmen or bowlers.
Quite remarkably, England chased down targets of almost 300 runs in the fourth innings, never easy in red-ball cricket – in each Test. The last two Tests in fact were won in stunning fashion as England scored at more than 5-runs an over to overhaul the target.
This turned the spotlight more on batsmen, especially Jonny Bairstow, who was in brutal form. But England’s bowlers were not too far behind, especially left-arm spinner Jack Leach, who picked up 10 wickets in the third Test to set up victory for his side.
Both Bairstow and Leach were on the brink of being dropped before salvaging their careers with jaw-dropping performances. Add these two stalwarts Joe Root, Stuart Broad and talented youngsters like ollie Pope, Mathew Popps and Zak Crawley, and England look truly formidable.
The biggest change, however, has been in the ambition and thinking of the players, individually and collectively. Inspired by new chief coach Brendon McCullum and new captain Ben Stokes, where England hitherto had been pedestrian, predictable and unimaginative, are now dynamic, energized, rich in self-belief and hungry to win. In the matter of three weeks, the turnaround in mindset and performances had been extraordinary making them unstoppable.
For India to beat this side is not impossible, but every player will have to be at his best. The margin for error is minuscule.
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