Washington Sundar has not done many things wrong since making his debut last month against Australia in Brisbane. Instead, one would assume that he punched above his weight, showing great maturity in his maiden knock at The Gabba, and continuing in the same vein in Chennai against England. Sundar was seen by many in the playing XI as a bowling all-rounder when he made his debut, but has since emerged as a better batting option – and as unfair as it could be, this may not work in his favour as India prepare for a comeback against visitors England in the 2nd Test.
Virat Kohli and the team management faces a significant dilemma ahead of the second game at the same venue where the side faced a 227-run defeat to England three days ago. With Axar Patel back in the squad after being declared fit, the position for a third spin-option is once again up for grabs. And this time, the almost-forgotten Kuldeep Yadav presents a stronger case over Sundar for a spot in the XI.
With Ravindra Jadeja unavailable and Ravichandran Ashwin’s noticeable decline in batting, the decision to pick Sundar was based on risk assessment in the first Test. Arguably, it also reflected on the perception in the team management for the 21-year-old Tamil Nadu player – someone who provides batting depth. With only six batting options available, Washington Sundar was the side’s go-to player, and he didn’t disappoint with the bat. In his first innings in Chennai, he further boosted his credibility and reliability factor, playing the anchor role in partnership with Ravichandran Ashwin, eventually remaining unbeaten on 85.
However, Sundar’s underwhelming performance with the ball remained an issue for Team India. The youngster’s bowling in the game signified that the bowler is still an unfinished product as a potent wicket-taking option on Indian pitches. The off-spinner barely threatened the English batsmen, and it helped little that Shahbaz Nadeem, the other bowler alongside Ravichandran Ashwin in the spin trio, also struggled with his lengths throughout the game. Sundar bowled only one over in the second innings when the pitch turned notably conducive for spin bowling, and Kohli didn’t shy from saying it out loud that he expects more from his spinners.
“If you talk about fast bowlers and Ashwin, they bowled consistently in good areas. The three of them. But I think if Washy (Washington Sundar) and Shahbaz (Nadeem) would have bowled those economic spells, the pressure created would have been more. The situation would have been different. The opposition would have scored 80-90 runs less,” the Indian captain had said in the post-match press conference.
Indian captain Virat Kohli had also argued that Kuldeep’s inclusion in the first Test would have made the spin-attack too one-dimensional. Like the other two spinners (Ashwin and Sundar), the left-arm chinaman bowler also bowls into the right-hander. There is some rationale behind the argument, although it can also be contested fairly.
A more pressing issue during the first Test in Chennai was the slowness of the pitch, which was hardly a suitable deck for a slow left-armer like Kuldeep. The spinner’s pace through the air has been an issue, and England batsmen would’ve likely negotiated his deliveries on the backfoot without much trouble. The early reports suggest that the pitch will suit spinners much early in the second Test, and India will hope for a comparatively better surface than the one in the opening game of the series.
If both the factors do align, it becomes critical for India to enter the game with their three most potent spinners and Kuldeep Yadav ticks the box. With Axar Patel offering considerable batting experience, it is crucial for India to prioritize wicket-taking spin options, rather than batting depth. Yadav turns it into the right-hander, and while Kohli did suggest that it becomes too one-dimensional, Kuldeep does bring the off-stump into play, creating opportunities for bowled and LBW – the most recurring mode of dismissals for spinners.
However, if the pitch remains as slow as the one in the previous game, will India ditch the three-spinner theory and opt for Mohammed Siraj? It is a possibility, but India, then, will have to dominate the English attack with pace, meaning Ravichandran Ashwin may no longer be a frontline attacker. Is it a risk worth taking?
There are selection headaches, and the team isn’t exactly spoilt for choices in this case. It is more of a ‘horses for the courses’-like situation. With two (and potentially three) candidates, all with different skill sets eyeing a single spot, India urgently need to discover their top-most priority.