West Indies v India, 3rd Test, St Lucia, 5th day August 14, 2016

Kohli advocates flexibility in team

India's Test captain showed a willingness to shake up his XI in St Lucia, and, he said, it's a trend he won't shy away from setting - though it might have more to do with the bowling attack going forward
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'Everyone was hungry to turn things around after Jamaica' - Kohli

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mahendra Kumar on August 17, 2016, 1:56 GMT

    Kohli did bad by doing adjustment to Rohit at 5. If he continues to do so, he himself will be in trouble.

  • Atanu on August 16, 2016, 17:08 GMT

    This is ridiculous.. Only to give chances to Rohit Sharma this is not at al required for the Team India. Cheteswar Pujara deserves a place in third position in test cricket....

  • Ashok on August 16, 2016, 13:51 GMT

    When a team is doing well with its existing batting including its batting order, it is crazy to replace 3 players! That is the real issue. Flexibility is good if the new players are just as good as the replaced ones. The worst case is replacing Pujara - a leading bat @#3 with highest batting average in Test Cricket. Bhuvi Kumar has always been the most economical bowler who is very good on a pitch assisting his swing. It is fine to replace Yadav with Bhuvi. Every Fan knows that Dhawan & Rohit are weak on a "Spicy" pitch & are essentially short format players. This is proven by their records. After knowing all this Kohli made a very bad decision. Pujara may be slow but he is no slower than the great Vijay Hazare used to be as the Hero of the Indian batting even vs. Bradman's Team when he scored a Test century in each innings in Australia. Test batting is different to ODI or T20. Kohli must remember this when he talks about flexibility! Don't jeopardise batting.

  • siddharth on August 16, 2016, 12:39 GMT

    Good lord so pujara haters actually exist!! True he hasnt converted his starts and went on to score big. True he doesnt score at a brisk rate and true he doesnt have the flamboyance of kohli but you simply cannot deny the qualities he exhibits as a proper number 3 batsman. How many times has he helped see off the new ball? When he scores a ton doesnt he make sure its a daddy hundred?Rohit sharma in test cricket is a joke. He doesnt have it in him to play test cricket. Id persist with both Vijay and Pujara

  • gurpreet on August 16, 2016, 4:46 GMT

    i m a huge fan of virat kohli and love almost everything he does. but this team selection for 3rd test was too much for me.. okay, we won the test but .....

  • Robby1985a on August 16, 2016, 3:33 GMT

    I feel Vijay will make the starting 11 in no time. Please however do not mix up Vijay with Pujara, one is supremely reliable on tours while the other is a proven failure over a long term. One can accelerate when the situation demands, the other has not been doing that for a while. One can handle all conditions and the other can only handle the sub continental conditions. They are just not in the same class, i am sorry to say this, but that is just how it seems to me. Eventually there will be a new number 3, in the meantime Rahul may solidify his opener role, Dhawan may be left out for Vijay in some matches, but just has that preferential treatment a leftie has had for a while. Agaist top bowling attacks Vijay will be starting in the 11.

  • Savio on August 15, 2016, 20:50 GMT

    Sorry i dont agree with the Statement that Pujara is not fit for the Indian team..and he cant score boundaries...Pujara scores big if youll have missed his 2 double centuries and a a 150 aganist a strong South Africa team and 145 in conditions where the rest just could not get going.The experts say that Pujara has to score big to have Rohit out of the team just becoz he is from saurashtra and Rohit is from mumbai which is so so unfair to him. Pujara along with Vijay are the 2 best test batsmen we have at the moment for all conditions. Kohli cannot play the moving ball and Rahane is circumspect and Rohit is no good for test matches. If india needs to be consistent they need to play their best players and Vijay and Pujara should be in their team at any given time.

  • san on August 15, 2016, 20:34 GMT

    @VIVEK94 Are you sure you do not need Dravids in this generation? Wait until IND plays real TEST cricket with top teams outside of SC.

    When asked about Dhoni's captaincy when reaching No.1, Ganguly said he would wait until IND plays outside SC (WI does not count, a team with debutants). I thought it was sour grapes from Ganguly..... but boy did I realize what he meant in 2011 ENG series. Now we all know the TEST legacy that Dhoni left. Same yard stick for Kohli... and I can't wait to see Ashwin and Saha repeat these heroics on those pitches.

  • IndTheBest on August 15, 2016, 20:33 GMT

    @VIVEK94 - I brought up S Iyer and K Nair for three reasons. They are much more consistent at First Class level (that's what they have played), have good technique and also are much younger to take rein from this group.

  • san on August 15, 2016, 20:31 GMT

    I am 1000% certain that they just wanted Vijay to be 100% fit before bringing him back into the team... No way he can be dropped. He has been the most consistent in the last several years. It will have to be a tussle between Dhawan and Rahul for the other opening slot.. going by recent form Rahul wins it hands down. Why cannot the reporters ask Kohli straight in the face - why did Vijay not play 3rd test? How future holds for Pujara?

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