Kohli advocates flexibility in team
When Virat Kohli announced at the toss in St Lucia that India were making three changes to their side, and that one person widely expected to step back into the side, M Vijay, was not doing so, your mind went back to Sydney, to his first Test as captain after MS Dhoni's retirement.
India made four changes on that occasion. One, Wriddhiman Saha replacing Dhoni, was a forced change. The other three were, to varying degrees, unexpected. Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma went out of the side, and in their places came Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. There was even a surprise retention. KL Rahul, who had made the most nervous of debuts in Melbourne, scoring 3 and 1, kept his place.
It felt like what it was: a step into a new era, of a captain willing to make wholesale changes to his side, based on a mix of form, conditions, and gut feel. At the end of the St Lucia Test, Kohli elaborated on this willingness.
"Usually if you see very few people like change," he said. "This team doesn't think how others would react or what they might say. We put out a combination that's best according to the pitch. When I came at No. 3 many people asked why I did it. But I am not fixated by my batting spot. If the team needs, I can open the batting too because that's the rule applicable to everyone in the team.
"It's not as if I will stay at No. 4 and others will shuffle their positions. To field a player like Rohit Sharma we had to make him bat at No. 5. To make that happen the other players will go one place up the order. That's what we did. In bowling we replaced Umesh [Yadav] with Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar] because we felt that since the ground is so good it would be easier to maintain the shine on the ball. The pitch was also hard, so there was carry.
"Bhuvi gave us the results, gave us breakthroughs with the second new ball. If you make three changes you might feel that it might to be too strong a reaction. But we realised that if we have to seal the series here then we had to make changes according to the conditions. We will not wait for another match because you never know if you play one or two bad sessions the series could be levelled. Our idea was that we have to seal the series here."
The St Lucia result, a win by 237 runs despite rain washing out an entire day's play, may suggest India's changes worked a treat, but it wouldn't be wholly accurate to say so.
The changes to the bowling attack seemed sound from the outset, and proved to be so. Bhuvneshwar was possibly unfortunate to miss out on the Man of the Match award after bowling the match-turning spell on Friday. Ravindra Jadeja gave India more control than Amit Mishra had done as a second spinner while also revealing a new side to his bowling: both his dismissal of Roston Chase in the first innings and Jermaine Blackwood in the second came from slow, flighted balls that invited drives outside off stump.
But the inclusion of Rohit, the promotions of Kohli and Rahane, and the absences of both Vijay and Pujara seemed too much of a shake-up when there was little wrong with the top order in the first place, and all that shuffling only seemed to compromise its solidity. It cannot be forgotten in the afterglow of victory that India were 126 for 5 on the first day of the match.
Equally, it would be silly to extrapolate from one performance and say India's current top five cannot settle into a solid, all-weather unit. At the post-match presentation, Kohli suggested that India might continue with their rejigged batting order for now, and that Rohit might need a substantial run of games to find his feet as a Test cricketer.
"We made three changes and we understood Rohit needs to be backed at a particular position," he said. "I batted at No. 3, Jinks [Rahane] at No. 4. Rohit is dangerous at No. 5. That means I take up the extra responsibility at No. 3. I don't mind that and someone like [R] Ashwin is batting well [at No. 6]. And we can play five bowlers."
In saying Rohit needed to be backed in a particular position, Kohli reinforced an essential truth of Test cricket, that horses-for-courses selections are generally limited to changes in the bowling attack. It's only in bowling that one style is dangerous in one set of conditions and less so in another. Batsmen need a certain amount of stability, and perhaps batting line-ups too. India, who have fielded three different top threes in three Tests, have not had that through this series. A combination of form, circumstance, and gut feel has given Kohli a top five he seems to like. Whether it can live up to the belief he has in it remains to be seen.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo