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KL Rahul hints India may stick to five-bowler strategy for Boxing Day Test

"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"

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."