“Surprise, yes. We didn’t think that Bumrah would have played. We know that he’s done really well in one-day cricket, but we were preparing more for the other seamers because they’ve played a lot of Tests. I think the other guy was Rohit ahead of Rahane. He’s been in a bit of form one-day cricket wise so they’re probably just running with that.” That was Faf du Plessis after South Africa’s 72-run victory in the first Test against India at Newlands, Cape Town, on Monday (January 8).
It’s fair to say that India’s team selection didn’t leave only du Plessis surprised. There were three decisions in particular that were the subject of much discussion: going with Shikhar Dhawan instead of KL Rahul, picking Rohit Sharma ahead of Ajinkya Rahane, and handing a debut to Jasprit Bumrah.
Of the three, Bumrah’s was a different scenario. He had shown in domestic cricket that doing well in the longer format wasn’t beyond him, and that sooner or later a Test cap would come his way. The only point of contention was that he hadn’t played red-ball cricket in a year. He could have played the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal for Gujarat against Bengal, but was instead sent to the National Cricket Academy. This, after the team to South Africa had been announced already. How much would getting overs in his legs in a match situation have helped? We can only guess. But the fact remains that after an up-and-down performance in South Africa’s first innings, Bumrah came spectacularly good in the second. He lengths were more concentrated, and he looked a lot sharper. The ball to get du Plessis was a snorter, lifting steeply from a length to catch the South African captain off guard.
With his performance in the second innings, Bumrah has certainly made a strong case for being part of the first-choice attack in the second Test. He also showed that what the team management saw in him was not misplaced.
What of Dhawan and Rohit though?
The case for Rohit’s inclusion can also be sliced either way. He had been in terrific form – true that it was against Sri Lanka on pitches that bore no resemblance to the Newlands surface – but on those same tracks Rahane was enduring perhaps the worst form funk he’s seen. You would back the team management’s decision to make a call if they felt that on balance, it was Rohit who deserved the spot ahead of Rahane. Kohli said as much when explaining the decision to leave his vice-captain out of the XI.
“Well, we decided to go on current form,” explained Kohli. “Rohit had scored runs in the last three Test matches that he played, and he was batting well, even in the series against Sri Lanka. We did a similar thing with Shikhar as well some time back. Look, these things can always be looked at in hindsight – thinking what if or what if not. But we decided to go with this combination and current form was definitely the criterion.”
As Kohli said, it’s always easier to speak with hindsight, and at some level, any selection you make is a punt of some sort: you are backing those picked to not just do well but do better than those you are leaving on the bench. The biggest such punt India took was on Dhawan.
“Well, the left-hander always helps, that’s what we felt,” offered Kohli. “They have got two, including Quinton (de Kock) in their batting order. I mean it’s difficult for the bowlers to set their lines and lengths every time with the strike rotating well. It has worked for us in the recent past, that’s definitely a combination that a lot of international sides want to go with these days, because you don’t want the bowlers to settle against one kind of batsmen and one line and length, specially with the new ball. We have to try and create plans that we feel will not let the opposition gain momentum very early on in the game and that’s the idea behind it.”
Dhawan, though, had a poor match. He dropped Keshav Maharaj on nought, and the left-arm spinner went on to make 35 in South Africa’s first innings. Then, both times when he batted, the short ball did him in. Clearly, the team management thought that given his rich vein of form in Sri Lanka and India, Dhawan could be relied on to reproduce something similar. Even in South Africa. Even on a pitch that Even Flint, the groundsman who has been tending to Newlands for nine years, described as spicier than normal. But the batting failures and the manner of his dismissals call into question the wisdom of that decision.
How that pans out in the lead up to the Centurion Test though, is anybody’s guess at this point.