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Tireless Jadeja's control on lifeless pitch justifies Kohli's faith in team combination

India have left R Ashwin out for all four Tests so far, and India's win at The Oval helped them shut out "outside noise"

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
He didn't play the innings of the match. That was played, arguably, by the Player of the Match Rohit Sharma; or if it is a mood-change we are measuring, then Shardul Thakur in the first innings. Umesh Yadav ended up with more wickets, and Jasprit Bumrah bowled the spell of the Test on the final day.
Ravindra Jadeja did none of this and yet was absolutely central to India's win at The Oval. This is just how he rolls. The two wickets of Haseeb Hameed and Moeen Ali were important but not as much as the sum of his bowling: 30 overs on a track aiding no bowler let alone one as prosaic as a slow left-armer, as many as 11 maidens and an economy rate of well under two. He bowled just under a third of the overs in the innings, which, in a five-man attack on one of the hottest days of the summer, is an important proportion given the load it took off the four quick bowlers.
It becomes especially noteworthy because it came in the aftermath of the continued non-selection of R Ashwin. That has been one of the main talking points right through this series, but nowhere did it reach a higher pitch than at The Oval, when Virat Kohli revealed his Ashwin-less team at the toss.
A vast body of opinion - "the noise on the outside", Kohli would later call it - thought India had erred. On the surface, The Oval hasn't been, for the last decade at least, an especially spin-friendly Test surface. But spinners average 24 from day four onwards, the best for all grounds in England with more than a Test played since 2014. There has been something for spinners then, but it doesn't change the fact that this Oval surface was not especially spin-friendly, either to the eye, or in numbers: seven wickets in all for 220 runs.
Kohli's reasoning at the toss only amplified that noise, in arguing that Jadeja's match-up against England's four left-hand batters was a good one. Ashwin's record against left-hand batters, as we are regularly reminded, is freakishly good.
The more Ashwin has not been picked, however, the more it has seemed as if this is not a like-for-like comparison between the two, or even a trade-off. This has been about India looking for its best combination, an aim complicated by the emergence of Thakur, who would do well to retire now because four Tests in, his career all-round figures are so good they have only one direction to go in. If anything this three-into-two conundrum highlights, it is the depth that India enjoy.
Jadeja offers a more solid batting option than Ashwin, which, with India's middle order struggling as it has, is important. His being left-hand, as batting coach Vikram Rathour said, has helped break up an all right-hand top five. But the real issue is that Thakur has ended up scoring runs and taking wickets, and India have now won three and drawn one of their last five away Tests in Australia and England without Ashwin.
"Within the group we know what we focus on and we take a collective call as to what feels like the best combination for us to walk on the field with," Kohli said at the presentation after the game. "And whatever feels best balanced we just go ahead with it, and we believe we can win Tests with that bowling line-up or batting line-up. Whatever the noise on the outside we don't bother with that. We just have belief in our group and we carry forward with that."
None of this should deflect from Jadeja's actual performance with the ball. Final day or final innings - or a combination of both - are nervy occasions for spinners because of the pressure of expectations: this is where they make their name, if not their living. Wickets are crucial, of course, but in a fourth innings, with a side trying to bat out a draw or chase a win, control is as important.
Monday wasn't the first time for Jadeja though. He bowled 32 overs in the fourth innings at Lord's in 2014, conceding just 53 as India defended 319 on a slow surface.
At the MCG in 2018, on an even less responsive surface than The Oval, he wheeled out 32 economical overs in the fourth innings in another win. There is Jamaica 2019 and Galle 2017 too, and in only one has he not been the lone spinner. So when Rathour said on the fourth evening that India expected Jadeja to "play a massive role [on the final day]", he wasn't simply resorting to an easy soundbite.
"[On] the fifth-day wicket, there is rough outside the left-hander's off stump. So, he will play a massive role," Rathour reasoned. "He bowled really well, I thought. He bowled with a lot of control, the last 5-6 overs he bowled did create a lot of opportunities."
This is what India expected and this is precisely what he did, hitting that rough relentlessly and ensuring, primarily, that he wasn't going to cede runs. They could keep him out, or kick him away, but he wouldn't let them score off him. Eleven maidens out of 30 is a high proportion, but it more or less matches his career rate: he bowls a maiden every three overs in the fourth innings. Of active Test bowlers, only Nathan Lyon, James Anderson and Stuart Broad have bowled more fourth-innings maidens; and all three with far lesser frequency.
The wickets were the bonus and that, at the other end, the likes of Bumrah worked off him, feeding off the pressure, and creating their own magic.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo