News Analysis

Shami's stiff leg a factor in lopsided squad

In Mohali, India had five fast bowlers in their squad and no back-up opener. Here's why

Arun Venugopal
Mohammed Shami celebrates with team-mates after dismissing Moeen Ali, India v England, 3rd Test, Mohali, 1st day, November 26, 2016

Mohammed Shami suffered a leg niggle, which was attributed to cramps, in Rajkot  •  AFP

The score might be 2-0 in India's favour, but the hosts got there despite significant fitness issues in the lead-up to the third Test in Mohali. Apart from late injuries to wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha and opener KL Rahul, India also had to deal with the possibility of fast bowler Mohammed Shami missing the match. Shami had been dealing with a stiff leg, which explained the presence of five fast bowlers in a squad that did not have a back-up opener.
A few days before the Mohali game, India's selectors had picked the squad for the last three Tests against England. Gautam Gambhir was dropped, three matches after making a comeback, in favour of Rahul, whose young career has been injury ridden. Virat Kohli's team takes pride in covering every base, so the absence of a back-up opener did not go unnoticed.
"Shami was having some stiffness in his hamstring, I think," a BCCI official told ESPNcricinfo. The team management wanted to ensure there was fast-bowling cover if a traditional Mohali surface, with bounce and lateral movement, was prepared. "In Kolkata [against New Zealand], we saw a good green top. We had the luxury of playing an extra seamer there and it really paid off as Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar] took a crucial five-wicket haul. That's what we wanted to be ready for here as well."
But what about cover for the openers? Former India captain Sourav Ganguly had said on ESPNcricinfo Match Day that a third opener was a "must" in any series. According to the BCCI official, however, Parthiv Patel, the wicketkeeper called into the squad to replace Saha, allowed the squad to go without a third specialist opener. The problem with that approach was, had Saha been fit, Parthiv wouldn't have made it to the squad, and Cheteshwar Pujara might have had to open after Rahul was injured.
Under Kohli's captaincy, India have been keen on tactical flexibility, though, and probably would have dealth with such a problem. As it turned out, Parthiv, playing his first Test in eight years, made 42 and an unbeaten 67 off 54 balls.
Parthiv will remain in the squad for the Mumbai Test, which starts on December 8. According to the BCCI official, the availability of Saha, who has not recovered fully, and Rahul will be determined in the next few days. Should Rahul not recover in time, he said, the selectors will have to consider bringing in another opener, while hoping M Vijay's back spasms don't act up.
There will also be only three fast bowlers in the squad for the Mumbai Test. Hardik Pandya is injured, and Ishant Sharma was released from the squad for his wedding.
Picking five for Mohali also seemed to be a way of managing workload. Shami's niggle first appeared during the Rajkot Test. He had discomfort - later attributed to muscular cramps - on the first day of the series and briefly went off the field. Even if he had been fully fit, Shami had still bowled 242 overs in international cricket between July 2016 and the second Test against England. His new-ball partner, Umesh Yadav, had bowled 206.5.
"Shami and Umesh are the only two bowlers consistently bowling 140-plus in tandem," the official said. "That's why we need have so many back-up options: to preserve them.
"Also, we have the luxury of playing at home, so you can accommodate an extra fast bowler and reduce their workload in the nets. After the amount of bowling they have bowled in the matches, you can't expect them to be bowling in the nets. And there are also many series overseas next season, so there is nothing wrong with young fast bowlers being with the squad, to help them understand how things work in the team and learn."

Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun