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Match Analysis

Who removed my spinner?

It is hard enough to win away Tests, but India keep making it harder for themselves by misreading conditions and selecting poorly

At the end of a hard day's grind for India, after the other 10 had left the field, Ravindra Jadeja walked along the length of a treacherous pitch, giving it a close look. Although Jadeja easily spent 15-20 overs on the field - substituting for Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Virat Kohli and M Vijay - he was not allowed anywhere near the pitch, which is exactly where he should have been wheeling away over after over to do what R Ashwin did in Adelaide: plug one end up, exploit the bounce, allow the fast bowlers short, sharp spells from the other end in the 39C heat, take whatever wickets come your way; in other words, be the frontline spinner.
India didn't have any. Yet again, the team management had misread a pitch. It is hard enough to win away Tests. It is harder still to do so after losing the toss. India just keep making it harder for themselves by misreading pitches and selecting poorly. You could tell from how Virat Kohli spoke a day before the Test - "we hope no grass is shaved off", "we are more excited than nervous", "we have the fast bowlers to exploit these conditions" - there was a real danger of India getting carried away.
This was only the third time in their history that India went into a Test without a specialist spinner - not counting Sydney 1991-92 because India did have the now-coach Ravi Shastri, a capable spinner in a variety of ways. There is a sound reason for that. Actually a variety of sound reasons. Good spinners help control the pace of the game. You get caught out on a stinker, they help you keep the fast bowlers fresh. You need to bowl last, they become crucial. You need them for over rate. You need them as a fail-safe; if the pitch is so helpful for fast bowlers that you think you can play four of them, three of them should do the job anyway. Most importantly, as the team management of a professional Test side, you can't be misreading conditions so often.
The Kohli-Shastri captain-coach team has led India in 12 Tests outside Asia and the West Indies. Here is a non-results-based assessment of their team selections.
Adelaide 2014-15 - Play Karn Sharma - 66 first-class wickets in 34 matches at the time - ahead of R Ashwin. Karn goes for nearly five an over while opposition spinner Nathan Lyon takes 12 wickets.
Sydney 2014-15 - Drop Cheteshwar Pujara, who had just helped India draw a Test. Play out-of-sorts Suresh Raina.
Cape Town 2017-18 - Drop Ajinkya Rahane based on his form on slower pitches. Play Rohit Sharma.
Centurion 2017-18 - Continue excluding Rahane, and also drop Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India's best bowler and second-best batsman in the previous Test.
Johannesburg, 2017-18 - Finally get Rahane back, but play five bowlers on a brutish pitch where extra batting cover is required. Hardik Pandya is required to bowl only eight overs.
Birmingham 2018 - Shikhar Dhawan is picked again. Only one spinner when Ashwin takes wickets even on day one. Pandya required to bowl only 10 overs.
Lord's 2018 - Two spinners in a four-day Test on a pitch kept under covers and moist with the weather around.
Trent Bridge 2018 - Get it right.
Southampton 2018 - Play Ashwin, who has not yet fully recovered from an injury. Believed to be 75-80%.
The Oval 2018 - Pick Hanuma Vihari ahead of Karun Nair, who has been with the squad for ages and might never get to play a Test again.
Adelaide 2018-19 - Get it right. Perfect combination. Six batsmen on a difficult pitch, balanced attack of three best quicks and No. 1 spinner.
That bring us to Perth 2018-19. Part-time spinner Vihari is the leading wicket-taker for India after day one. Lyon must already be chomping at the bit thinking of bowling on this track to right-hand batsmen not very adept at avoiding bat-pad catches.
This could be the cost of Adelaide where Australia kept India on the field for most of the last day, which is when Ashwin bowled with early signs of the injury. The next day was a three-and-a-half-hour flight, which also put them two-and-a-half hours behind Adelaide time. They then had two days to get their body clocks right, and more importantly recover from the wear and tear. India's premier spinner couldn't. What's probably more disturbing is that, knowing this Indian side, they might still have gone with no spinner even if Ashwin had been fit and available.
It also begs the question if India don't trust Jadeja enough. There has to be a reason why Kuldeep Yadav played at Lord's when they felt the need for two spinners, and Jadeja was kept out even when Ashwin was not a 100% for Southampton. The last time Jadeja played a live rubber as the only spinner in the side was way back in 2014, at Old Trafford. If there is no trust in him, does Jadeja travel only for his substituting abilities? India didn't even use them in Adelaide, with Vihari doing the job for most of the time.
Ashwin's bowling is not the only thing India will miss this Test. He scored 25 in a crucial 62-run stand with Cheteshwar Pujara from 127 for 6 to turn the Test around India's way. Now India's tail will begin at No. 8. They could have of course gone for Bhuvneshwar Kumar to address that situation, but India chose Umesh Yadav, who went at 3.77 an over, got a wicket off a long hop and kept releasing the pressure with easy scoring opportunities.
It was a day when all that could go wrong did. India lost the toss. Ishant Sharma, under the scanner for his missed no-balls in Adelaide, was called when he had not even overstepped. The umpire in question was also under the scanner, Kumar Dharmasena, from whose end Ishant did a lot of bowling in Adelaide. Here Ishant had to change ends, struggled for rhythm with his no-ball problems, and finally returned to Dharmasena's end only when the second new ball was taken, taking wicket first ball.
Despite all that - poor selection, lost toss, wayward start, slow over rate - India showed a lot of heart and resilience on the field. Jasprit Bumrah, unsurprisingly, was the leader of this revival. Once again he showed his aptitude by immediately correcting his lengths after a first spell that read 5-0-20-0. He built pressure all day long with subsequent spells of 4-2-6-0, 5-3-3-1, 1-1-0-0, 3-1-4-0, and 4-1-8-1. India rallied around him, fielded well, and toiled hard on the kind of day teams are known to totally fall to pieces.
India still are the best Test team in the world, but when you watch them fight through spiritedly in these difficult situations, when you see the skill on offer, you actually wonder how much better they can be if they don't misread the conditions so often. And there's no spin anyone can put on that.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo