India face tricky call in Pandya’s absence

It’s usually an exaggeration when someone describes a green pitch as being indistinguishable from the outfield. But at Eden Gardens on Monday, when the groundstaff whisked away the white tarpaulin that had covered the Test-match pitch all afternoon, it was close to being the truth. Live green grass covered every inch of the strip, and you had to squint – at least if you were looking at it from the stands – to discern the subtle shift of shade where it bordered the rest of the square.

Even though three days remain before the start of the first India-Sri Lanka Test, it’s hard to see it changing too much.

While the extent of its greenness may have come as a bit of a surprise, the pitch was always expected to help the seamers. Ever since the square was re-laid in 2016, Eden Gardens has been a fast bowler’s ground. Last year, aided by seam movement and uneven bounce, the quicks took 26 of the 40 wickets that fell during the India-New Zealand Test here, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar picking up a five-for in murky conditions late on day two. Just under two months ago, Bhuvneshwar was at it again, swinging the new ball wickedly under lights to bowl India to an ODI win against Australia.

And it isn’t just Bhuvneshwar who’s enjoyed himself at this ground. In six first-class matches here since the New Zealand Test, seamers have picked up 16 innings hauls of four or more wickets, while spinners have only managed four.

It was perhaps with this in mind that Sourav Ganguly, the former India captain and current Cricket Association of Bengal president, expressed surprise at the news of India resting Hardik Pandya for the first two Tests against Sri Lanka.

“I’m surprised,” he told reporters on Sunday. “I don’t know if he’s injured. He has played only three Tests… This is the age to play. I don’t know the exact reason. Hope he’s fit.

“India won’t play with three spinners, definitely not at the Eden Gardens as the pitch here is different. They will play with two spinners and now since they don’t have Hardik Pandya they may have a different combination for the allrounder’s slot.”

Against New Zealand last year, India played six specialist batsmen, and a second-innings 82 from that sixth specialist, Rohit Sharma, played a key role in India’s win. India have played five bowlers – or four and Pandya as the allrounder – in each of their last four Tests, but they have been pretty flexible otherwise over the last couple of years, winning Test matches home and away with 3-2, 2-3 and 2-2 combinations of seam and spin.

They haven’t used three seamers at home since the rain-truncated Bengaluru Test of 2015, however, and Thursday could give them an opportunity to do so. Having Pandya could have allowed them to do this while still being able to bat deep and play two spinners. In his absence, they will either have to play three genuine quicks and two spinners, or – wait for it – three quicks and just the one spinner.

Three quicks, one spinner. It seems outlandish for India to even consider such an idea when their two main spinners are ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in the world, but it’s a move they’ll probably have to contemplate anyway when they tour South Africa in a month-and-a-half’s time – with or without Pandya in their line-up.

In his debut Test series in Sri Lanka, Pandya was hugely impressive with the bat, scoring 50, 108 and 20 in his three innings and going at over a run a ball, and useful with the ball, picking up four wickets at an average of 23.75 but only bowling 32 overs across three Tests.

In India’s dream scenario with Pandya, he is a good enough batsman to bat at No. 6 while being a good enough bowler to be their third seamer. As of now, he may or may not be a No. 6; he definitely isn’t a genuine third seamer for conditions where third seamers are expected to bowl a lot of overs.

And so, even with Pandya in their XI, India might need to pick three frontline quicks outside the subcontinent. And that, more often than not, will mean playing only one out of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

On Thursday, they might just have to make that choice at home, on a pitch that could be, by accident or design, a dress rehearsal for South Africa. (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)


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