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KL Rahul has hinted that India are inclined towards playing five bowlers in the Boxing Day Test in Centurion, leaving them with a "very, very difficult decision" over which batter to pick at No. 5. While addressing a press conference on Friday, Rahul, vice-captain in the absence of Rohit Sharma, was asked whether India would find it hard to manage the workloads of their bowlers in case they only played a four-man attack.
India have played five bowlers in each of their last 15 Tests, but with the allrounder Ravindra Jadeja injured and out of the tour, it will be a less-than-straightforward decision to stick with that combination in South Africa. Nonetheless, Rahul's response suggested that five bowlers remains India's preferred option.
"I think more teams have started playing [five bowlers], because, you know, every team wants to pick up 20 wickets, and that's the only way you can win a Test match," he said. "We've definitely used that tactic, and it's helped us in every Test match that we've played away from India. I think the workload also becomes slightly easier to manage with five bowlers, and when you have that kind of quality, you might as well use it."
With a five-bowler combination leaving room only for five batters, it seems likely that Ajinkya Rahane - who averages 19.57 in 12 Tests this year - will be locked in a three-way tussle for the No. 5 slot along with Shreyas Iyer, who recently made a century on Test debut against New Zealand in Kanpur, and Hanuma Vihari, who warmed up for this series with three back-to-back fifties during India A's shadow tour of South Africa.
"Look, it is a very, very difficult decision to make, obviously," Rahul said. "Ajinkya has been a very important part of our Test team and has played very, very crucial knocks in his career. The last 15-18 months, if I can think back, his knock in Melbourne was really really crucial; it helped us win a Test match. That partnership with [Cheteshwar] Pujara at Lord's in the second innings where he got a fifty was really important, and that ended up in us winning the Test match. So he's been a key player for us in the middle order, and he's a very, very strong player.
"Shreyas obviously has taken his chances. He played a brilliant knock in Kanpur, got a hundred; so he's very exciting. And Hanuma has done the same for us, so yeah, it's a tough decision. But we'll start having a chat today or tomorrow, and you'll get to know [the No. 5] in a couple of days' time."
One of the challenges of a South Africa tour, Rahul said, was getting used to the bounce of those pitches, which he suggested tends to be of a spongier nature than the bounce in Australia - at least in the early part of Test matches.
"I haven't played a lot of games here in South Africa, but from my experience, I think sometimes the pitches can be a little bit challenging because of the tennis-ball bounce," he said. "We've played in Australia where the pitches are fast and bouncy, but here it can be a bit spongy in the first couple of days, and then it starts to quicken up. So when I played last time, each time the wicket was a bit difficult, and you had to understand and adjust according to that, so that becomes a huge challenge for both batters and bowlers."
On Thursday, South Africa fast bowler Duanne Olivier had suggested that the Centurion pitch for Boxing Day would be of a similar nature - slow to start before quickening up - and Rahul agreed with that assessment.
"Look, I think Duanne Olivier will know these conditions a lot better than us," Rahul said. "Yes, even the last time we played here, the wicket started off a bit slow and then quickened up, and then got slow again. I think from whatever information we can gather about the Centurion pitch, it's been that kind of a pitch. And even in the centre-wicket practice, we experienced the same things, and we tried to prepare accordingly."