Spin to win or is pace their ace - India's Test quandary

Ananya Upendran
28 Sep 2021
Spin to win or is pace their ace - India's Test quandary

India returned to playing Tests after close to seven years. © Getty Images

On the back of a thrilling victory in the final ODI that ended Australia’s 26-match winning streak, India managed to keep themselves alive in the multi-format series. Going into the Test match, the visitors will be high on confidence having registered their first points in the series - they now trail Australia 4-2. Through the ODIs, India’s batting showed great promise with the youngsters stepping up on the big stage. The seamers too – led by the evergreen Jhulan Goswami – were at their fiery best.

Having played a Test match only four months ago, India go into the format with a little more experience and understanding of how to go about their business than the Australians, whose last Test was in 2019. However, there is the uncertainty surrounding the pink ball and playing under lights – an advantage the hosts have over them.

Much of India's Test XI (read: batting line-up) picks itself, but there are still some questions they will need to answer going into the match on Thursday (September 30). With the conditions likely to suit the pace bowlers, India, traditionally a spin-heavy contingent, may have to alter their approach.

Women's CricZone considers some of the questions that could be on the minds of the team management as they seek to finalise their XI.

Form over feats?

© Getty Images Yastika Bhatia or Punam Raut - who will get the nod? © Getty Images

Yastika Bhatia’s inclusion in India’s ODI XI came as a bit of a surprise to most. After Jemimah Rodrigues’ excellent performances through The Hundred competition, it was believed the talented right-hander would slide back into India’s XI without a second thought. However, India’s management pulled a fast one, siding with the left-handed Yastika, and boy, did she grab her chance with both hands. In three matches, Yastika scored 103 runs including a maiden half-century (64 off 69 deliveries) in India’s thrilling win in the final ODI on Sunday (September 26). She showed a strong back-foot game, scoring freely on both sides of the pitch, unperturbed by the pace of the Australian quicks. Against the spin, she used her feet well, unafraid to hit over the top against both Ashleigh Gardner and Sophie Molineux.

ALSO READ: Meet Yastika Bhatia, the karate kid who loves batting

Within the domestic circuit, Yastika is known widely as a strong defensive player – someone who can anchor an innings, bat for long periods and hold one end up. In the ODI series against Australia, she showed a different side of her game, but there is a strong possibility that the solidity she displayed in the middle may tempt the team management to fit her into the Test XI as well.

The left-hander, of course, will most likely be vying for the slot generally occupied by veteran Punam Raut. The 31-year-old Raut, one of India’s most technically correct batters, is seen as something of a Test specialist. Her maiden international hundred in 2014 that came in a Test match against South Africa – a marathon 355-ball knock that yielded 130 runs – is testament to that fact. More recently, Raut scored a 104-ball 39 in India’s second innings against England in Bristol to help the side save the Test.

Raut’s appetite for batting is not in question, but she has, in recent times, proven to be very susceptible to the ball swinging into her. Under lights, where the ball can be expected to hoop around corners, will India back a proven performer to get them through what will be a tricky encounter, or will the bolter be handed another debut?

Which seamers should play?

© Getty Images Will the swing of Pandey and Singh outweigh the pace of Vastrakar, or could the allrounder's batting prowess see her sneak into the XI? © Getty Images

The performances of India’s seamers in the ODI series leaves them with a bit of a problem of plenty going into the Test. That Jhulan Goswami will take the new ball is without doubt, but the question remains as to which two others will partner her. Or could India play all of them?

ALSO READ: Why women should have more opportunities to fail in Tests

Through the ODIs, outswinger Meghna Singh and allrounder Pooja Vatsrakar were India’s first choices. Both bowled extremely well, troubling the Australian batters at different points in the game. Singh was particularly impressive on debut and followed it up with an incredible opening spell in the second ODI where she dismissed Meg Lanning to pick up her maiden ODI wicket. Her ability to swing the ball late and bowl a naturally full length to threaten the edge could mean she is a shoo-in for the Test match. However, there could be a question over her fitness and whether she has the ability to last four days.

In ODI no. 3, Singh did appear slightly tired, not getting through the crease as strongly as before, and sometimes floating the ball up rather than hitting her lengths hard; the short turnaround between the second and third matches telling on the fast bowler. What does work in her favour though is that it is a day/night Test match, and India will need someone who can nip the ball around under lights.

Singh’s outswing aside, India could also call upon the inswing of Shikha Pandey. The 32-year-old was overlooked for all three ODIs, but may just sneak into the Test XI. Since the 2017 World Cup, Pandey has been one of India’s premier bowlers, forming a strong partnership with Goswami. She would undoubtedly be a handful if given a go – the hooping inswingers a good matchup against many of Australia’s top-order.

Pandey will, however, face stiff competition from Vastrakar who bowled with great pace and a surprising amount of control through the ODIs. After conceding 26 runs in two overs in the first game, Vastrakar bounced back brilliantly, to pick up her maiden ODI wicket in the second game, before following it up with figures of 3 for 46 in the final match. The allrounder was handed a Test debut against England earlier this year and has been Mithali Raj’s preferred option because of her ability with the bat.

With Goswami having rediscovered some batting form and both Vastrakar and Pandey’s allround abilities, India may be tempted to play all four of their seamers in what are more than likely to be helpful conditions. They did so in Wormsley in 2014 and beat England by six wickets… Will they have the courage to do it again? Could pace be their ace?

Pink ball. Under lights. Seam friendly conditions. There could be no better time.

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How much spin do India need to win?

India © Getty Images Poonam Yadav, Ekta Bisht and Rajeshwari Gayakwad: Which spinner will be a winner? © Getty Images

“Spin is our strength. We back our strength.”

A variation of that line invariably makes its way into India’s press conferences. Regardless of the conditions, India have often picked a plethora of spinners in the hope that they will be able to weave a web around the opposition. More often than not, they do. But in recent times, they haven’t been as effective as they once were.

The last time India won an overseas Test, Ekta Bisht served as the sole frontline spinner. India’s four seamers – Jhulan Goswami, Niranjana Nagarajan, Pandey and Shubhlakshmi Sharma – did a bulk of the damage on a green surface in Wormsley. Seven years later, in Bristol, it was the off-spin duo of Sneh Rana and Deepti Sharma who helped peg England back in a drawn encounter.

The pair’s success with the ball in England, and the solidity they provide with the bat could mean they are certain starters. That then leaves a place for either one of Bisht, Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Poonam Yadav, or none of them.

In the past Raj has often preferred to play a left-arm spinner in the XI. Gayakwad’s return to the side could thus see her earn her second Test cap. She bowled well in the two ODIs she played and provides great control and variation to what could be an otherwise monotonous spin attack.

It is likely the factor that will influence this decision is the pitch conditions and the form of the quicks. If Australia serve up a green track, India may just stick with the two off-spinners. But if not, Gayakwad could sneak her way in.

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Who is the ‘keeper of the keys?

India © Getty Images Richa Ghosh or Taniya Bhatia: Who takes the gloves? © Getty Images

Taniya Bhatia is India’s best wicket-keeper. Richa Ghosh is their best wicketkeeper-batter. It is for this reason that India have sided with the latter in the limited-overs format. In her maiden ODI series, Ghosh scored 76 runs at a strike rate of close to 92 in the lower middle order. Her attacking style meant she provided the impetus to the Indian innings in the closing overs – something they’ve been searching for for a while now. However, Ghosh didn’t have the best series with the gloves, missing several chances off the spinners in both the second and third ODIs.

Through Taniya’s international career, her glovework has never been in question. It is her batting that has brought her place under the scanner. But on Test debut, she showed great grit and determination in an unconquered 104-run stand for the ninth wicket alongside Sneh Rana. The diminutive right-hander scored a match-saving 44 not out off 88 balls, surviving 115 testing minutes against an excellent English attack.

In what are likely to be tough conditions for the batters, do India want to bolster their batting with the inclusion of Ghosh, or will they pick their best ‘keeper to make sure their bowlers have the best chance of taking 20 wickets?

Squad: Mithali Raj (c), Harmanpreet Kaur (vc), Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Punam Raut, Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma, Sneh Rana, Yastika Bhatia, Taniya Bhatia (wk), Shikha Pandey, Jhulan Goswami, Meghna Singh, Pooja Vastrakar, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Poonam Yadav, Richa Ghosh (wk), Ekta Bisht