Explained: Is five specialist batsmen the right call for India?

India vs England 4th Test match: With an out of form middle order and a long tail, it's perhaps time India change their five-bowler strategy and plump for an extra batsman.

The batting heroics of Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah on the final day at Lord’s notwithstanding, the long tail has been a big cause of concern for India in the ongoing series against England. The batting order tapers off drastically after No.7, but skipper Virat Kohli has steadfastly refused to include an extra batsman in the final XI, not compromising on the principle of playing five specialist bowlers.

What is the problem?

In the first three Tests of the series, India played Ravindra Jadeja as the spin option, though in light of the conditions on offer, the left-hander was functioning more as a batting all-rounder coming in at No.7 after wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant. The seamer-friendly environment at Trent Bridge, Lord’s and Headingley prompted the team management to include four pacemen and there was no place even for Ravichandran Ashwin, considered the best off-spinner in contemporary cricket.

Shardul Thakur played the first Test and his ability with the bat gave a semblance of solidity to the lower-middle order. But when he got injured, Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11 read Shami, Ishant Sharma, Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj. Apart from exceptional situations, like the second innings at Lord’s, one cannot expect too many runs from them. The opposition also remains in the game at all times, even when there is a good partnership in the middle order, as there’s always a chance of a collapse with the fall of two quick wickets.

What is the root cause of the problem and its result?

Apart from Jadeja, the designated bowlers in the two previous Tests can’t bat, and the specialist batsmen can’t bowl. The top-five of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane can’t be expected to bowl too many overs, let alone provide a vital breakthrough when the main operators are off.

Despite the team management being gung-ho about fielding five specialist bowlers as an attacking option, they have been forced to make some compromises. Jadeja has been preferred over Ashwin on the basis of recent batting form (though the off-spinner scored a hundred during the home series against England). The conditions don’t encourage playing two spinners as India realised to their detriment in the World Test Championship final, though Ashwin was the more effective of the two tweakers against the Kiwis at Southampton.

Shardul started the series, and not Ishant or Umesh Yadav, as he could contribute useful runs lower down the order. It shows that the think tank was aware of the problem. After Hardik Pandya’s injury stopped him from bowling even in the IPL, a seamer-allrounder option, more useful in England, went out of the window for India.

How has this problem affected the Indian batting in the series?

One can play five specialist bowlers if the designated batsmen are among runs. This is not the case with India. Nos. 3, 4, and 5 have had the odd decent score in the series, while Pant at No. 6 has looked confused about the approach he should take. The opening combination of Sharma and Rahul gave the team good starts in the first two Tests, but when they failed to do so at Headingley, it put the pressure on the out-of-form middle order. The result: two batting collapses and an innings defeat.

How have England (and other teams) gone about things of late?

Their top six includes the wicketkeeper (Jos Buttler in the first three Tests and Jonny Bairstow for the fourth Test starting on Thursday). Their batting was underperforming in the first two Tests with skipper Joe Root carrying them on his shoulders.

England also played five bowlers (four seamers and one spinner, like India) but their lower order generally is much more prolific than India’s. The likes of Moeen Ali, Sam Curran, Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton can be relied upon to get some runs under pressure.

Most teams these days have one or more of their top six who can be useful with the ball. In some cases, the wicketkeeper is part of the top six (Quinton de Kock, BJ Watling, Mohammad Rizwan). All teams now put a lot of emphasis on getting runs from the lower order. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have made a habit of it over the years.

What has been the preferred combination of the greatest teams in the history of Test cricket?

The West Indies team from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s and the Australian side of the late 1990s and early 2000s are considered the strongest teams in Test history. Both of them played with four specialist bowlers, who could be relied upon to do the job in most conditions. The Caribbean pace quartet and the Aussie attack comprising Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne were good enough to win matches. They played with six specialist batsmen and their wicketkeeper was more than useful with the willow in hand.

Unless a team had someone like Jacques Kallis, Andrew Flintoff or even Shane Watson – a useful bowling option batting in the top six – most sides went with specialists in Test cricket till very recently.

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