Few team sports generate heated debates over the composition of a playing eleven than cricket. Maybe because cricket, unlike hockey and football, has a limited role for those who have been benched.
The arguments get even more heated when it comes to India captain Virat Kohli. The suspense lingers on almost till the toss before he reveals names and more often than not, the list causes surprise, even shock, among fans and the media. In 34 Tests as captain, Kohli has not picked the same team for two consecutive matches. He prefers to judge the conditions first and follow a horses for courses policy.
Whatever happens in the ongoing Centurion Test (this column is being written before start of the third day’s play) or the rest of the series, the talking point will remain the inexplicable selections. Fans, not to mention media experts, are usually convinced that people kept out of the playing eleven are superior to the ones that have been given the opportunity to play. Few are willing to give benefit of doubt to the captain or coach, who are best qualified to pick a player over another, given his importance in the prevailing conditions.
Ahead of the first Test in Cape Town, debates raged over which of Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul will open the batting with Murali Vijay and whether the more solid Ajinkya Rahane will be preferred over the inconsistent, but in-form Rohit Sharma.
Dhawan turned out to be a sitting duck against the rising ball on a spicy Newlands pitch, falling for 16 in both innings, first to Dale Steyn and then to Morne Morkel.
Rohit was determined to make it count, surviving for 59 deliveries in the first innings and 30 in the second, but runs were hard to come by. He fell for 11 and 10.
Bumrah was all at sea in the first innings even on a helpful pitch, pitching the ball up to invite the drive — as he does in India — and was taken for 73 runs in 19 overs. Having learnt his lesson, Bumrah shortened his length and made the ball lift and swing to grab three for 39 in the second innings, including the prize wicket of AB de Villiers in both innings.
So when the tourists arrived in Centurion for the second Test still stinging from the 72-run defeat in the first, most of the talk centered around what changes will be made for the crucial match.
Two days before the match there was even talk of dropping Ravichandran Ashwin and playing an extra seamer because the pitch was reputed to be quicker than the one in Newlands and would have nothing for the spinners. What the teams got was a dry pitch one usually finds in the sub-continent and the Indians must have heaved a sigh of relief that Ashwin was kept on board. The off-spinner made the ball turn and bounce to pick up four wickets in the first innings.
Kohli once again kept Rahane out and replaced Dhawan with Rahul. Neither move worked as both Rahul and Rohit failed to tackle the South African pacemen and fell for 10 apiece. But what does one tell a captain who has no hesitation in benching seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India’s bowling hero at Newlands ?
Kohli’s game of musical chairs has worked in the past in home conditions. But has he gone too far this time?
Only time will tell.