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Sanjay Manjrekar

Don't rule India out; they handle pressure better than England

They start on the back foot, without their first-choice XI, but if it gets tight, the money's on Kohli's team

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
I am not as optimistic now as I was a few days back about India's prospects in the Test matches in England. Back then, Jasprit Bumrah was not a non-starter.
It's amazing what strides Bumrah has made in his three Tests. In his debut innings, in South Africa, he erred on the side of wanting to make things happen and ended up spraying the ball around. But in the very next innings he was bowling like a Test veteran.
He embraced the South African fast-bowling philosophy of keeping it simple, bowling on the sixth stump outside off, and waiting for the wickets to come. And they did, five of them in one innings in the third Test.
The angle Bumrah bowls forces right-hand batsmen to play at his deliveries outside the off stump. He has the ability to get the ball to come in from there, and also to leave the right-hander off the pitch from that line, which makes him a difficult proposition for the batsmen. To left-handers, there is that natural angle leaving them. Bumrah also has excellent control over all his variations, and he can be an attacking bowler as well as a good defensive one.
Being a defensive bowler is a virtue that is often necessary in Tests, especially for India overseas. It is for this reason that Ishant Sharma has played so many Tests overseas and will do so again in the first Test in England.
Bumrah being unavailable is a massive setback for India. Yes, there is Mohammed Shami, who has the knack of turning the tide by suddenly getting three wickets in one spell. He is still the most gifted of all the current Indian seamers but he is a bit of a "blow hot, blow cold" kind of bowler, which does not help.
India's bowling, if all their bowlers were fit, was going to be their strength on this England tour, a rare instance indeed where India's bowling was going to outweigh their batting.
Speaking of India's batting overseas, in South Africa, England and Australia, it is now a bit like it was in the '90s, dependent very much on one man. It was Sachin Tendulkar then, it's Virat Kohli now.
On their last big stretch of overseas trips, from 2013 through 2015, India's batting was more rounded, with M Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane being a great support cast to Kohli. Since then both Rahane and Vijay have dropped a few notches as batsmen, while Cheteshwar Pujara and Shikhar Dhawan have never been a force as batsmen overseas like they are in home conditions; in fact, both have lost their places in the playing XI during overseas series.
That's why I believe KL Rahul has to be given all the support and opportunities possible, for he is potentially India's next successful overseas batsman to partner Kohli with the bat. Dropping him in the final ODI in England was a big mistake for this very reason. Wriddhiman Saha's injury is another huge loss, but this does not quite get the attention because it is felt there are adequate replacements for him. This is so not true.
His potential replacements might be better batsmen, but how does that matter? Are R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the team for their batting? No, it's their bowling that counts. The same principle must apply when selecting wicketkeepers. No one keeps a record of runs scored by a batsman after he has been let off by a keeper. Those runs form the debit balance a keeper carries in the match for his team.
Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel are earnest cricketers, and I admire them for that, but as keepers for Tests, especially in England, which is the toughest place to keep in the world, they are below the standard required. When you have Karthik or Patel as keeper, you run the risk of costly lapses behind the stumps. There is no point in Karthik getting a fighting 60 with the bat when he has dropped Joe Root on 20 and Root has gone on to get 200. That is a debit balance of 140 runs.
I understand that this can happen even to the best keepers, but with someone like Saha, the chances of these reprieves are kept to the bare minimum. Also, you get the additional bonus of some stunning catches behind the stumps, instead of, say, four runs down the leg side that you would have with a lesser keeper.
It is Rishabh Pant's batting that has got him picked as the second wicketkeeper in the squad. I don't like this trend at all, of keepers getting selected because they bat well. In Tests, they must be exceptional keepers, period. The time has come for India to search for the best gloveman in the country after Saha, and not a batsman-keeper.
Now to the issue of Kuldeep Yadav and whether he should be the first-choice India spinner. Well, if that happens, first and foremost, it would be tough and unfair on Ashwin and Jadeja, two class spinners who have put in the hard yards in Tests to cement their places and make a name for themselves.
I am not a big fan of wristspinners being fast-tracked and superseding established, proven, successful Test spinners based on their performance in limited-overs cricket. England are supposedly doing the same, if talk of them looking into recalling Adil Rashid is to be believed, but they will soon get a reality check there; Rashid was a proven failure in Tests, and his subsequent white-ball success does not suggest in any way that he is a better Test bowler now.
Wristspinners' success in white-ball cricket has a lot to do with batsmen being forced to score quickly against them. We saw how Kuldeep wasn't the same bowler when England were chasing only 257 in the last ODI, in Leeds. They weren't desperate to score quickly against him, and so were able to play him a lot better than they did earlier in the series.
Mind you, Kuldeep is a sensational talent - no way is he just a white-ball phenomenon. Why, he has nine wickets in the two Tests he has played so far. But I would still think a hundred times before putting his name on the team sheet before Ashwin and Jadeja for the first Test.
Yes, it's really tempting to play him because of how England struggled against him in the limited-overs games, but remember that frailty was in limited-overs cricket. Batsmen handle deceptive bowlers better when they don't have to hit boundaries off them.
Also, if the pitches are slow, Kuldeep's one weakness comes into play - of him not being a "strong" spinner, in the sense that, like Ashwin, he does not have the ability to get the ball to fizz off a slow pitch.
If you get a slow turner, India's best bet is Jadeja. He has the ability to turn the ball sharply on a slow pitch, and his 30th over is as intense as his first. If India play two spinners, Kuldeep can be your second spinner, but your first spinner has to be a seasoned, proven bowler, who knows how to bowl with patience, and if need be, bowl economically too. That is a job Kuldeep is currently not qualified to do.
Playing Kuldeep as a lone spinner is a massive risk and will put him under tremendous pressure if he is expected to be the only game changer with the ball in the side. It's not right to do that to him at this early stage in his career. Jadeja and Kuldeep would be my preferred two spinners if India play two spinners. It's a better combination than Ashwin and Kuldeep.
India should not fall into the trap of playing an offspinner because there are many left-handers in the opposition. Alastair Cook, a left-hander, was dismissed six times by a left-arm spinner, Jadeja, in the last series.
I wish everyone was fit; it would have made for a great series. But with all these injury setbacks for India, England start as favourites.
Still, don't rule India out, because if it gets tight, this Indian team has the capability to come out trumps. For when it comes to handling pressure, temperamentally this team, led and inspired by Kohli, is far superior to the hosts. Temperamentally this is one of the best teams India have ever had. We saw evidence of that in their last Test, against South Africa at the Wanderers earlier this year.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. @sanjaymanjrekar