The cloud of uncertainty on the 5th Test has finally been lifted almost at the last hour, so to say. India leads the 5 match series 2-1, the Covid scare almost led to the derailment of the 5th Test & hence the result of the series. While the ECB wanted India to forfeit the series, the BCCI was in no mood to relent.
Kohli and Rohit were equally adamant and at one point it looked like the things would reach a flash point. Better sense prevailed & discussions were kept in abeyance for the time being and more clarity was sought. Be as it may, eventually, all the Indian players tested negative & are now cleared to play.
Since the 1st Test of the series, not just Indian fans but even the critics, commentators have been flummoxed on how the World’s best spin bowler could be left out of the playing XI. Ashwin’s absence from the 1st Test, many attributed to the English conditions and Kohli’s insistence to have 4 pacers as well as, have a depth in the batting. The fans consoled themselves as a one match anomaly. But when it happened over 4 matches, the decision defied any logic & reason.
That Ashwin could not even make it to the 4th Test was particularly glaring. This was after a heavy defeat at Leeds and India needed to claw back into the series. Ishant and Shami were laid low due to niggles and the situation just begged for Ashwin to be included and yet Umesh & Shardul walked into the XI. To Kohli’s credit, both his bets paid off. Umesh took 6 wickets in the match while Shardul provided vital breakthroughs as well as match changing 50’s in both innings. However, to expect the same at Old Trafford would be foolhardy. Though, India will not lose the series even if they lose the match, a 2-2 result would mean that the Pataudi Trophy would remain with England. India desperately needs a series win in England, having done so 14 years ago in 2007. A new resurgent Indian team will not like to settle for a series draw.
Given this backdrop, it’s imperative that Ashwin be included in the playing XI for the 5th Test. His superior overall record, simply begs for an automatic selection. Now, even the circumstances are conspiring for his inclusion. Ashwin on his part has done whatever that is required to show his commitment & eagerness. He made himself available to play for Surrey for a county match to acclimatize to the English conditions, way ahead of the Test schedule. In the 2nd innings of this match, he took 6 / 27 against Somerset. Notably, Ashwin’s bowling average over the last 3 years has shown a tremendous improvement, moving from 24 to 21 & then 18. What India needs today is a bowler who can take wickets at the top as well as polish off the tail.
Ashwin’s record there is impeccable too. 31% of all his Test wickets have come from top 3 batsmen. Alastair Cook’s discomfort while facing Ashwin has been well documented. Ashwin is no mug with the bat either. He averages 26 with the bat in England and 28 overall v/s England; not to mention his 5 Test centuries. Without doubt, he is a capable lower order batsman. Jadeja on the other hand has taken 5 wickets in the last 8 innings. This is not to say that for Ashwin to move in, Jadeja has to move out. Both of them can co-exist and in tandem can create havoc in the England batting lineup with relentless accuracy and choking of runs. For that, Kohli will need to deviate from his stubbornness to go with 4 pacers at any cost. A 3 pace attack of Bumrah, Shardul, Umesh will serve just as fine. Given that this is the last match of India’s tour and well into 2nd week of September, the wicket at Old Trafford can be expected to have seen a fair share of wear and tear through the long season. Spin cant be ruled out from day 4.
India has to go with their might and back their best wicket taking bowler to deliver the goods and the trophy.