After a comfortable 2-0 series win in the West Indies, India have strengthened their hold over the number one position in the ICC Test rankings. There were plenty of positives for India from the series with the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Hanuma Vihari and Ajinkya Rahane making telling contributions.
However, there were some areas of concern too, especially K L Rahul’s patchy form and Rishabh Pant’s below par performances. Former India captain and coach Anil Kumble reflects on the series and looks ahead in this wide-ranging interview.
GK: First of all, this 2-0 win in a sense highlights the gulf in between the teams?
AK: Yes, India have been a top team for a while now and West Indies have had their issues. We have seen over the years that it is not the same dominating West Indies which we were so used to seeing growing up.
Unfortunately, in the last decade or more West Indies cricket has gone down. There was a little bit of hope when they beat England in their conditions and also when they won that wonderful Test match in Headingley but unfortunately West Indies haven’t been able to put a team together to beat and repeatedly come up with consistent performances so that has been the bane for West Indies but I think India was certainly dominating throughout the series if you take the T20I, ODI and the Test series.(Pic: AP)
GK: Before I talk specifics with you Anil, these were the first two Test matches that India played under this World Test Championships. Your thoughts on the idea itself before we discuss it a little further?
AK: Being the part of a cricket committee, I have been discussing about the World Test Championships for a long, long time. I am really glad that we got it underway. I know there are complexities but this is the best possible competition you can come up with for Test cricket.
We all felt that we need to bring back some kind of a context to Test cricket. People look at context through number of people watching Test cricket but I think those two are separate debates altogether. So, we wanted to bring a lot more context to the game and I am glad under the circumstances this was the best possible circumstances you can come up with.
GK: Actually, throw some light on this point system, the fan on the outside is going to wonder India is playing these two Test matches, winning these two Test matches and going to 120 points where as you can play an Ashes series and your team could win four Test matches and yet not get to 120 points. What is the thought process behind this design? Does it place teams who are playing shorter Test match series at an advantage?
AK: When you look at overall scheme of things, the way Cricket is structured in the world, it has its own complexities. There are bilateral series, some series are five Test matches, some series are three, some have two and some have only one and some has four. I don’t think we can change that.
In an ideal scenario, you would want a tournament like an IPL and you have seven home, seven away like that if you can come up with an overall nine-team competition which is what it is in a current Test championship, then I think it is an ideal world for everyone to understand.
Unfortunately, you need to work around with what is available today and what is the actual reality on the ground and that is how the series has been structured and then understood. So, you have to manage some sort of a competition which can bring in some semblance as you led the competition and go through it.
Early on when you look at points table, yes England get 24 for winning an Ashes Test match but India get 60 for beating West Indies in the same way. If India had lost the Test match against West Indies, India would have lost 60. So yes, there are pros and cons.(Image: Twitter/@ICC)
GK: Right, let me ask you about some individuals, and let me start by asking you about Jasprit Bumrah who came into the scheme of things around the time when you were the India coach. Now, just seeing his development as a Test match bowler and especially these two Test matches what has struck you the most in terms of the skill sets and how they have improved?
AK: I think he is an amazing cricketer, you know for a young boy who walked into Mumbai Indians in the IPL when I was part of it till now, he has just grown in stature, grown in his skillset, he is much stronger, fitter and he has added a bit of pace.
He is a lot more consistent, he knows how to get a wicket. It is not just about the skillset you have or you possess the ability to bowl in, away or a bouncer. I think the ability to bounce back and what to do when I think Bumrah has done that brilliantly and he is a great student of the game, he understands the nuances, he bowls differently to different batsmen assesses those conditions really quickly and that has been the ability of Jasprit Bumrah in this series.
What really was intriguing and what was really nice to see was his ability to swing the ball away from the right hander or to the left hander coming back in. I think that to me is lethal. Bumrah can do that consistently. One coming back in is a natural angle to the right-hand batsman. If he can take the ball away which he did in the series, we know what he could do. He could just blast out the opposition in less than five or six overs and that’s the ability Bumrah has and I think India is blessed to have someone like him.
GK: You have played with a lot of great fast bowlers of your time and I know you mentioned it is only 12 Test matches and he has been playing Test cricket for a year so perhaps we tend to get swayed but what is your view, do you see shades of a great fast bowler in him? For instance, when you see him bowling a yorker do you see shades of a Waqar or a Wasim?
AK: Well certainly, I think he has all the credentials to become a great bowler and already he is the number one bowler in the all three formats. I mean if you look at the consistency that he has shown. In all the three formats, India depend a lot on Bumrah.
To have that ability to do that consistently and carry that burden, he just needs to remain fit and then continue to work on that and he is a wonderful student of the game. He understands better than any other bowler and you can see that in his development.
So, yes, he certainly has the quality to go on and become the greatest ever fast bowler from India. I think that is something that he has and you can see those shades early in his career. He is only 25 so he has a long way ahead of him and you know it is wonderful to see the kinds of performances he has put together.
What really differentiates Bumrah and someone starting young is his ability to convert those two or three-wicket hauls into five-wicket hauls and then win matches for the country. I think that is a hallmark of a bowler, you would want your bowlers to be match winners and that’s what Bumrah does and he has showed that in this young career of his.
GK: In fact, the series wasn’t just about Jasprit Bumrah. Along with Ishant Sharma & Mohd Shami, this trio has over the last year & a half just continued to progress. It seems like a really lethal combination of bowlers who seem to support each other very well.
AK: I think the performances that India has shown in the Test series over the last 4-5 years has been because of the bowling strength that India possess. It’s wonderful to have such fast bowlers & spinners. You have Ravichandran Ashwin sitting on the bench & not getting a game, I mean you won’t even think of that 3 or 4 years ago.
Kuldeep Yadav as well. You have Bhuvneshwar Kumar who is not even in the squad, you have Umesh Yadav sitting on the bench, Navdeep Saini & a few other young fast bowlers in the line-up. So, it really augurs well, it’s always the bowling which wins you Test matches. I know there is this debate about batting vs. bowling, but I think to win Test matches you need to pick up 20 wickets & the reason that India is number 1 today in Test cricket is because of the bowling attack that India possesses.
And like you said Gaurav in all these three fast bowlers, Ishant, Bumrah & Shami, they are different. Although they are all right arm bowlers, Ishant is tall, he bowls in consistent areas, and he bowls long spells. Bumrah is very unique in his action, pace and change of pace. Shami has been exceptional; the seam that you see is very consistent, he bowls quick, he is a lot fitter in the last couple of years & then his ability to bowl that unplayable delivery and pick up those crucial wickets.
I mean set batsmen, he gets them out. That’s the ability you need in a bowling attack. There are times when the team struggles to pick up or make a breakthrough and that’s what Shami can do. When the ball starts reversing, he can be lethal and we have seen that. So, to have this kind of a fast bowling unit is certainly a blessing and we have seen the performances over the last few years.
GK: Now, this Ashwin situation is quite intriguing for those sitting on the outside. In fact, even the message from the management seems to be that he has fallen in the pecking order when it comes to India picking only the one spinner overseas. What’s your view Anil? Do you believe that the decision making is fine, given the performances that Ashwin has had over the last year and a half or do you believe that India needs to find a way to get him back into the XI, especially in these overseas Test matches?
AK: He is still the best spinner that you have. Yes, there have been a few incidents where he has had injuries & not performed to his potential, but Ashwin is your number 1 spinner in the team. He should be a part of the squad, he should be in the playing XI, you have to make a way of getting him in.
I strongly believe that the team certainly can have two spinners in the squad, because both Ashwin & Jadeja are wonderful batsmen. Ashwin has had four Test hundreds, Jadeja has been really consistent with the bat. He did that again in the West Indies, he’s a wonderful bowler too & both of them in tandem can certainly be handful for the opposition.
So yes, when India travel outside, it’s not always that you get 4 bowlers to pick up 20 wickets. Ideally, if you have a combination of 3 fast bowlers & 2 spinners, wherein your 2 spinners can also contribute with the bat, that’s the perfect scenario. And you have 2 front-line spinners who are equally good as batsmen, so I think it’s just a matter of time, I strongly believe that Ashwin will certainly make it into the playing XI. So, the management needs to look at that and I am a bit surprised that someone with the ability and quality of Ashwin is sitting out in a Test match.
GK: That brings me to the other issue, which is the rise of Ravindra Jadeja in the sense almost leapfrogging Ashwin to become the first-choice overseas spin bowler. Do you believe it is because of the overall package that he offers?
AK: Yes of course, he is a complete package. He has the ability to bowl long spells, control the bowling from one end, he is the number 1 fielder in the world today. He has shown over the last one and a half years consistency with his batting. We always knew the potential of Ravindra Jadeja as a batsman but it was quite sporadic in the way he showed his batting performances.
Yes, that’s the reason why Jadeja is playing in the XI but I strongly believe that both these spinners can be accommodated in the playing XI.
GK: Not too many problem areas in that series in the West Indies but one I think everyone is now wondering what that outcome will be for KL Rahul. Four innings, a couple of starts but really had not a very good series. Now there are other contenders for that role as opening batsman. Do you believe enough has happened for Rahul to lose his spot as the India opener now?
AK: Yeah, I mean it is a tricky situation that KL is in. KL has done well, like you said he has got starts but not converted them, got out. He has struggled, he looked like I think in the last innings, he looked like he is struggling to get bat on ball, he was not his usual self.
I think he seems to be in a bit of a mindset where he is not really sure whether to attack whether to defend. He is unsure, you can see it in his footwork. I think that’s the problem, it’s all in the mind, yes, there could be some technical issues but then if the mind is not clear, if the thought process is not clear, then that doesn’t help.
Then your technical issues get exaggerated. So, I think it’s important that he has a clear mind. The support has been there for KL Rahul, I think he needs to start scoring runs in domestic cricket. Once he gets a couple of hundreds in domestic cricket, then gets into a Test match scenario he’ll be a lot more confident.
I think it’s a confidence issue that is there with KL Rahul, yes that’s a position that probably there’ll be a lot of discussion before the next Test match that India plays in, but having said that, if you have won a Test series then you won’t go in unless there is a replacement, you know Prithvi Shaw is injured, so he’s coming back from that injury as well so unless there is a ready replacement, I am not really sure whether India will be looking at somebody else.
Yes, he certainly hasn’t done justice to the talent that he possesses so that’s the only thing probably goes against KL Rahul, he has not been consistent, hasn’t had a big score over the last 20 or 25 innings, except for one hundred at the Oval at the end of that series.
GK: Yes, there are a couple of guys on the domestic circuit who are making a case, but there has been a left field suggestion doing the rounds and I wonder what your thoughts on that were. In a way similar to how Virender Sehwag was asked to open the batting for India and that worked so wonderfully well, there are some now who are starting to say that perhaps look at Rohit Sharma for that role. He does it very well in One-Day cricket, he can’t seem to break into the Indian middle order, so maybe look at him in that role?
AK: You only know when you actually do that but I am not really sure about pushing Rohit at the top unless it is a desperate situation. Yes, are we in a desperate situation where we are looking for an opener in someone who has done well at the domestic level, is it worth considering that or should Rohit, Yes, he is a high-quality player sitting on the bench, should he be pushed at the top?
I mean those things you need to start looking. Yes, he certainly has the experience, he certainly has the ability to bat anywhere in the batting line-up. Opening the batting in Test matches I think is a bit different to opening in ODIs but having said that, you’ll only know when you push him into that situation.
GK:Even before the team went, MSK Prasad said that Rishabh Pant will be India’s number 1 wicket-keeper batsman across all formats. Does it seem to justify the confidence even with the bat, especially in the Test matches and in some cases, even with the gloves. What’s your take, do you believe with Saha back in the mix, is there pressure on Pant to retain his spot?
AK: There is because I think Saha is the number 1 keeper, no doubt about that. The ability and quality that he’s shown over the years behind the stumps has been exceptional. Also, he’s contributed in front of the stumps as well, with the bat.
So, yes, there is a lot of pressure on Pant. He’s young, flamboyant. I don’t think one needs to curb his flamboyance. He needs to certainly work on his keeping. Especially the spinners that he’ll have to face when India plays at home. So, there will be a few testing times and if that doesn’t go his way then you have Saha waiting in the wings.
GK: Let me ask you about some other positives. There was some debate over Hanuma Vihari’s selection for that number 6 spot, ahead of Rohit Sharma but he ended up as the highest run-getter in the series. What did you make of him from whatever little you’ve seen of him? Do you sense that this is a player who could have a reasonably long career?
AK: I think he’s made for Test cricket in terms of what he’s shown in this series against West Indies. He left a lot of deliveries, that’s what you want when your team is in trouble. You want the batsman to leave a lot of deliveries and wait for the bowler to bowl at you, play to your strengths, which was mostly on the on-side and if it was pitched up then he would play towards the covers.
So, just waiting for the bowler to come to him rather than him going to the bowler. So, that’s what you want and now you have two batsmen like that. You have Pujara, you have Vihari. So, I think in that sense the team gets balanced in that fashion. But it’s really nice that somebody who is not a force in the shorter format, being given an opportunity in a Test match, has come through. I think that really augurs well for the young man and he’s shown a lot of mental strength to come through and do well. It was his first Test hundred, it wasn’t easy, he had to work hard.
GK: One thought on Ajinkya Rahane, he had a little bit of a down period in Test cricket. He hadn’t made a lot of runs of at least hadn’t made a big hundred for the last couple of years. So, he’s just settling back into that squad and making contributions. He’s another player who’ll come off the series believing that he can have a big season ahead.
AK: I’m really happy for Ajinkya Rahane because he’s such a hard worker and he hasn’t had success over the last couple of years. He’s had good hundreds and then nothing. Coming through, he’s been dropped but he’s come back into the team. He’s vice-captain of the team. So, there are a lot of things riding on Rahane.
He wasn’t picked for the one-dayers, he’s obviously missed out on the T20s. So, it’s nice to see Rahane come back in form. I also feel that he was fighting everything between the ears here but he’s won that battle. He’s gone through, he hadn’t scored a hundred over the last few matches leading up to the series.
So, a lot of things are common between him and KL Rahul. Rahane has gone past that with his experience, his class and also his temperament. I’m really glad that he’s come through and now I don’t think one needs to start thinking about Rahane, whether he’ll score or he won’t score, because in England, he was in two minds, you could see that.
GK: Before we let you go Anil, just wanted your thoughts on the upcoming season particularly because of the T20 World Cup and India building up to that. The Dhoni situation, how do you read it? It seems very intriguing, apparently the message coming through is that he’s opting out of this series but the selectors seem to be saying that there’s almost a line in the sand. How do you read it, is there an exit plan that doesn’t seem to be on script from both parties?
AK: I think the selectors will have a take a call as to which is the likely team that you’d want in the World Cup because the World Cup is just a year away. You’d want a consistent team to be playing right throughout and that’s exactly what didn’t happen in the 50-over competition.
There were a lot of changes leading up to the World Cup. We were still not sure about who that number 4 would be, the whole World Cup we kept on discussing who should bat at number 4, and that’s not what you want leading up to the 20-over World Cup. You’d want all those roles and responsibilities to be fixed and make sure that you have back-ups for certain positions, just in case somebody gets injured or if somebody’s out of form. So, yes, there will be some discussions about an exit plan like what you just mentioned.
But having said that, MS Dhoni certainly deserve a proper send-off, whenever he decides to move on from the sport. But for the team’s sake, the selectors need to sit down and have as discussion around what the plans are because it’s important that things be communicated. If the selectors believe that Dhoni is in the scheme of things for the T20 World Cup then I think he should be playing every game.
If he’s not, then it’s important that they have a discussion around how they need to make this happen. I think they need to do that in the next couple of months. Like I mentioned, he certainly deserves a proper send-off, whenever that happens but the communication needs to be come from the selectors.
GK: So, let me try and put you on the spot a little bit. Would you have him continue as part of the Indian team now that the World Cup is done and dusted? Would you look at him for another year?
AK: I’m not really sure. I think Pant has certainly made a lot of claims as a keeper-batsman, especially in the T20 format. So, it’s important to have a conversation and you need to have a proper send-off, he certainly deserves that. So, I think you need to have a proper conversation around how you want to do that. But having said that, Pant has certainly shown that but he’s also shown some inconsistency.
So, that’s a call the selectors need to make. Today, in spite of all of that, are you going to back him or someone else, or would you look back. I wouldn’t but I think it’s important that the selectors take a call on that.