India now shift their focus on their next home assignment- three Tests, three ODIs and three T20Is against Sri Lanka. The first Test begins in Eden Gardens, Kolkata from Thursday, November 16. Looking at the conditions in Kolkata, India may just have found themselves with a dress rehearsal for South Africa.
Traditionally, the pitch at Kolkata was known to assist the slower bowlers irrespective of the format, Tests, ODIs or IPL. Ever since the pitch was re-laid in 2016, The Gardens has become a track where the fast bowlers rule. The numbers since this track was re-laid are interesting. In the 2016 Test series vs New Zealand, out of the 40 wickets, 26 (65%) of the wickets went to the seamers. In the recent ODI between India and Australia, out of the 20 wickets, 12 (60%) went to the seamers. Numbers in the domestic games post the India-New Zealand Test match also show a similar picture. In the six first-class games, seamers have picked up 16 hauls of four wickets or more in an innings. Spinners have only four such hauls.
Now how does this Test match serve as a rehearsal for South Africa? With early reports coming in that the pitch would be covered in a wrap of live green grass, it’s hard to imagine that the pitch would change drastically with the Test match still two days away. Captain Virat Kohli prefers five bowlers. It will not be a surprise if he picked three seamers and two spinners for this game. With Hardik Pandya rested for the opening Two Tests, India are likely to go in with five specialist bowlers. This game could well become a shootout between India’s spin twins- Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Touring South Africa, India would be looking to strengthen their batting as much as possible and that is where Pandya’s role becomes crucial. Not only does he bat, but also gives India an extra seam-bowling option. Outside the subcontinent, India will not be expected to go in with two spinners even if it means those two spinners are ranked second and fourth in the world right now. While Pandya does not warrant his place as a third seamer, he definitely allows the team the luxury of getting a third seamer as he makes up with his batting and provides India with the batting depth.
This eventually means that one of Ashwin or Jadeja would have to sit out of the games outside the subcontinent. This Test in Kolkata should provide the Indian think-tank with an opportunity to judge who out of Ashwin or Jadeja could fare better on the South African pitches with their performances on a green top at the Eden Gardens. Both have had previous experience of playing in South Africa. In his only Test there, Jadeja picked up six wickets at 25.67 which is not a poor performance at all. Ashwin, in his only appearance, went wicketless. Ashwin outside the subcontinent (Australia, South Africa and England) has had meagre returns. He averages 56.58 in seven Tests with 24 wickets. Jadeja has an average of 45.28 with 18 wickets in seven Tests.
The return of seamers Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami also puts the question forward of who the three seamers will be for this Test. With Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar expected to play this Test, a decision between Shami and Sharma needs to be taken. In three first-class games this season, Shami has picked up 16 wickets at 24.19. Sharma has 15 wickets at 13.93 in three games. Shami, being the local boy, could see himself in the XI for the first Test.
While India get ready for their latest home assignment, one eye would certainly be on the forthcoming tour of South Africa, their first tour outside the subcontinent since West Indies in August 2016. The conditions at Kolkata has coincidentally given India the chance to test a few things out before they embark on their African tour. What would be the bowling combination? Do they play their spin twins together in South Africa? Where do they see Hardik Pandya in the lineup? All these are interesting questions to ponder as the first Test between India and Sri Lanka starts in Kolkata.