Jadeja’s absence to test India’s five-bowler policy in South Africa

When India take the field for the first Test against South Africa in Centurion on Boxing Day, it will have been exactly a year since they began playing five bowlers overseas consistently. They have been doing that at home under Virat Kohli for years, but it was under then stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane that they followed the template overseas as well, starting from the 2020 Boxing Day Test against Australia in Melbourne.

For eight successive Tests now across Australia and England, India have stuck to the five-bowler combination in the absence of a seam-bowling all-rounder such as a fully-fit Hardik Pandya. And Ravindra Jadeja has been a critical component of that strategy, having missed only the Brisbane Test out of those eight games with a broken thumb. He will be missing the South Africa tour this time with a forearm injury, and his absence will test India’s ability and willingness to apply their preferred five-bowler approach.

Jadeja was the lone specialist spinner used in the four Tests in England earlier this year. He was chosen ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin throughout the series, a decision that divided opinion sharply. But Jadeja has a marginally better record with both bat and ball compared to Ashwin across South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia (the SENA countries).

In 18 matches there, Jadeja averages 28.03 with the bat and 36.60 with the ball. Ashwin’s corresponding numbers in 21 Tests in SENA countries are 22.26 and 38.38. Jadeja has scored five fifties there while Ashwin has made two.

Since his breakthrough unbeaten 86 at The Oval in 2018, the team management had developed more confidence in Jadeja in SENA conditions. So much so that the next time India played at The Oval, in 2021, he came in to bat at No. 5 in both innings, ahead of Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant.

No Jadeja also means India will have to play Shardul Thakur as one of the fast bowlers in South Africa to provide some batting depth at No. 8. None of the five other pacers in the squad – Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj – are known for their batting abilities.

Moreover, unlike in Melbourne, Sydney and Southampton (in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand) – where both Ashwin and Jadeja played – India are unlikely to play two spinners in South Africa. On the rare occasion they do, that makes it two Test centurions, Ashwin and Jayant Yadav, at No. 7 and 8, which sounds like reasonable batting depth.

Washington Sundar was another all-round spin option with Test experience, although his bowling average is almost 50. His Brisbane heroics on debut will go down in history but he has just made his domestic white-ball comeback after injury for Tamil Nadu in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. A Test-match workload would probably have been too much to ask at this stage.

The stage to himself

In all likelihood, Ashwin will get to play all three Tests in South Africa as the sole or lead spinner. The last time he had that chance was in the pink-ball Test in Adelaide last year. Even then, Jadeja was always around competing for his spot, so this tour will allow Ashwin to have a three-match run without the pressure of his formidable partner-in-crime breathing down his neck. It is also a shorter series than those in Australia and England, where Ashwin’s fitness had let him down in the four- and five-match contests in 2020-21 and 2018, the latter occasion leaving the door open for Jadeja’s comeback.

The only case where there might be no need for even Ashwin is if India are encountered with a brute of a pitch such as the one in Johannesburg on the last South Africa trip. That could make them think about Hanuma Vihari as the sixth batsman and part-time off-spinner along with a four-man pace attack.

Vihari has perhaps been the biggest victim of India’s five-bowler strategy. Since making his debut in September 2018, he has been limited to 12 of the 31 Tests India have played. He’s played all of one home Test so far, and wasn’t picked for the recent New Zealand home series. Instead, he was sent to South Africa with India ‘A’, for whom he made 25, 54 and 72 not out in the unofficial Tests.

He didn’t bowl in his two games in Bloemfontein, but it could be his off-spin that might get him into the XI in the South Africa Tests. Even Shreyas Iyer, another middle-order option, was seen practising his part-time leg-spin during warm-ups in the Mumbai Test against New Zealand. They’re vying with Rahane, who is no longer vice-captain, and even when he was, he did not play the first two Tests on the previous South Africa trip.

Nevertheless, whatever combination India go in with come Boxing Day in Centurion, Jadeja’s injury has thrown up several possibilities, along with a test of their five-bowler policy.

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