Why Virat Kohli is right to leave out Ravichandran Ashwin
Ravindra Jadeja batting at No. 5 was the last straw. "Virat Kohli will go to any lengths to prove that his decision of not playing R. Ashwin is justified", was one of the tunes the fans were playing on social media at the end of Day 3. These fans remind me of the American rifle shooter at the Athens Olympics in 2004, who was sure he had scored the 8.0 he needed to win gold. He had in fact scored zero and finished last, because he pointed his rifle at the wrong target.
It’s been amusing to see how every 10 calls for Ashwin to be included in the XI have been matched by barely a whimper of who he should replace. I put out a tweet at the end of Day 3 asking social media to poll who's place he should take. Nearly 30% said Jadeja, showing how many people are missing the point: Jadeja’s promotion to No. 5 is a well deserved punt. In this series, he’s spent more time at the crease than Rory Burns and Ajinkya Rahane. Jadeja’s average this series is bettered only by India’s top four. So more than Ashwin, Jadeja is keeping Hanuma Vihari out.
The question was never "Will Ashwin take more wickets than Jadeja?" Of course, he will. He’s the superior spinner. The question is "Will Ashwin take more wickets than a fourth seamer?" Because it’s not Jadeja keeping him out, it’s one of India’s four horsemen.
The World Test Championship final has left its scars on this series. It was an opportunity for Virat Kohli to win his first ICC title, perhaps his best opportunity. In that game, India persisted with three seamers despite the conditions screaming for four. That Ashwin bowled superbly in that final mattered little. The team management clearly thought they had the wrong man. And this has been a "bowl-first" series. Every toss (aside from the Headingley disaster) has seen England put India in. Which suggests the conditions have warranted four seamers.
Now, bowlers work in pairs. In this series, large portions of the games were played in conditions where any captain would want a fast bowler operating. With three fast bowlers, a captain has to stretch one for a longer spell from one end, and rotate the other two. If all your fast bowlers are bowling equally well, then over the course of an innings, each bowler bowls roughly the same amount of overs.
But with a three-pronged seam attack, a captain's problems compound when one bowler has an off-day. Notice that I said ‘when’, not ‘if’, for even the best bowlers are not robots. Suddenly your best seamer has to bowl the most overs, and therefore is less effective deeper into the innings. And so a captain has to rest the fast men by using spin, in conditions suited for pace.
A four-pronged seam attack in conditions that suit it is a very different beast. Less overs in the legs means more intensity into each delivery, deeper into an innings. This is one reason why India’s pace attack has been labelled "relentless".
I am a big fan of Ashwin the cricketer. He has a penchant for innovation, more at home in the creator economy than the cricket economy. His utter disregard for tradition, instead leaning on common sense, might be my favourite quality. And I haven't even gotten to his skills.
Ashwin’s popularity is higher than it has ever been. Through his YouTube content he’s provided us the kind of peeks into the Indian men’s team environment that fans have been starved of for decades. Perhaps it is because of his soaring popularity that the discourse around his place has never been shriller. Nor as deaf to cricketing reasons.
So despite wanting to see Ashwin play, I recognise that in such conditions, there is merit in leaving him out, because India’s fast bowling stocks are richer than they have ever been in history. Bumrah has 16 wickets so far. Mohammed Siraj has 15, Mohammed Shami 11. The fourth seamer for India combined has 13. Would they have been as successful if they were a triad, rather than a quad? That is the question and there is no way to know the answer.
Perhaps hindsight will prove this to be the wrong move. Perhaps the Oval pitch will turn ragged on Day 5, and Jadeja’s skill will be insufficient, even with the rough. But the cricketing logic behind this decision is not as unsound as people are making out to be.
When is it OK to drop the Alpha? When the wolf you play in his place can make the pack stronger.