Virat Kohli can pick the ‘wrong’ team for Old Trafford and it probably won’t matter

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Team selection is a fun thing to talk about before a Test match, but sometimes it really isn’t that important.

We tend to view selection decisions through a prism that refracts everything into right or wrong. But cricket doesn’t exactly work like that.

In any given Player A versus Player B situation there is of course always a better option – but it’s often marginal. Even when it isn’t, the decision is not generally of as much importance as we tend to think it is. In terms of the outcome of the match, you’ve got to weigh the difference between Player A and Player B against the contributions of the other 21 players involved. That selection decision is more than a drop in the ocean, but it’s rarely the difference between victory and defeat.

Plus you can never be certain how the game would have gone had the other player been included instead. If Player A made a hundred, maybe Player B would have made a double. Most likely they wouldn’t have done, but you can’t know.

Different players steer the game in different ways too. Match situations change through the inclusion of a different player which means everyone else would perform differently.

So yes, there are differences, and yes, team selection therefore matters. But not that much. And sometimes not much at all. Sometimes there’s a big black hole gravity that can’t be fought no matter what you do.

England’s bowlers

“Bowling on flat pitches tears the backside out of some of these lads,” said Nasser Hussain after watching James Anderson and Ollie Robinson gradually decelerate at the Oval earlier this week.

Now that is a truly stomach churning thing to visualise but the thrust of Hussain’s point was that Joe Root could mitigate the effects by using his third, fourth and fifth bowlers a little bit more.

Using his third, fourth and fifth bowlers is not a thing Root does especially well. In this series he did it best when India were bowled out for 78, which is when doing so was least important. It is during the big innings when he does it worst, forever going back to the well for another bucket of Anderson or Robinson.

This is the eternal tension of captaincy in the field. You always want to use your best bowlers. But you can’t… but you want to… Somehow it’s always a really, really important passage of play, isn’t it?

As a captain, your best bowler is a constant temptation. It’s easy to slam Root for succumbing, but the truth is that his team isn’t good enough that he has much leeway. If they were better all-round, he wouldn’t forever be finding himself in situations where he needs ‘a bit of magic from Jimmy’.

So he keeps asking for that. He keeps asking for that magic. And head coach Chris Silverwood will most likely keep providing him with that option because by this point in the series he’s vulnerable to exactly the same temptation.

Eventually Jimmy will have no magic. And nor will Robinson. And probably nor will Chris Woakes who just bowled 47 overs in his first red ball match in a year.

That bland world without magic is what England are moving towards and they’re banking on not quite arriving there during the fifth Test at Old Trafford.

There have of course been injuries that make this kind of bowler management more likely. We’d argue that some of those injuries arose precisely because England have found themselves in this situation before.


Earlier this year, India beat Australia at the Gabba without Ishant Sharma, Virat Kohli, Mohammed Shami, KL Rahul, Ravindra Jadeja, Hanuma Vihari, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, R Ashwin and, for half the Test, Navdeep Saini.

That is quite the feat. We likened it to the scene in Aliens where the xenomorphs are throwing themselves at the automated sentry guns. No matter how many got cut down, there were always more and the threat didn’t diminish one iota.

India have an awful lot of incredibly good cricketers of every type these days. Captains of strong teams often talk about having to make ‘difficult decisions’ when deciding who to pick and who to leave out, but the difficulty has little to do with the ramifications of the decision. In terms of winning and losing matches, Virat Kohli wouldn’t unduly suffer were he to submit himself to the wisdom of the hat.

The most obvious current example of India’s strength is that they are beating England without R Ashwin, who may as well have stayed in Devon for all he’s been asked to do this series. Ashwin’s is a repeated omission so jarring that none of us talk about the absence of another spinner, Axar Patel, who has taken 27 Test wickets at 10.59 – all of them against England. Pitches, conditions, small sample sizes and all that – but that is still quite the thing when you stop and think about it.

The fifth Test of a series

Whether he’s the best option or not, Kohli trusts Ravindra Jadeja with the ball. This means Jadeja bowls his share of overs in each Test. Kohli trusts his team’s batting too and so also played his spinner when England did not.

England will go into the Old Trafford Test with Anderson having bowled 166 overs this series and Robinson 163. For India, Jasprit Bumrah has bowled 151, but their next most used bowler is Mohammed Siraj with 126.

We’ve highlighted Root’s occasional reluctance to use one or two of his bowlers, but some of that difference is also down to performance: England have had to bowl 43 overs more than India because they have been less good at cricket.

And when you get to the fifth Test of a series, these differences are exaggerated.

If opening bowlers wind up diminished by their workloads, the rest of the attack becomes a lot more significant.

For England, it would be quite understandable if Woakes were a bit leggy too, while Root’s faith in Craig Overton seems heavily dependent on conditions. Sam Curran, meanwhile, has played three of the Tests and taken three wickets at 79.33. Much seems to rest on the famously robust and resilient shoulders of Mark Wood.

India, by contrast, have Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Shardul Thakur all averaging less than 28 in the series. Ishant Sharma has been a tangential figure so far, but he is not a bad bowler by any stretch, having taken 85 Test wickets at 20.72 since the start of 2018. They could also, if they so wanted, play the world’s number two ranked Test bowler.

It’s a marked difference.

We’re not saying England can’t win and we’re not saying India are flawless. What we’re saying is that cricketers’ contributions to a Test aren’t discrete from those around them. We’re saying that you can only lean heavily on certain players for so long.

As we come to the final Test, Joe Root has the greater need to lighten the load on his key bowlers – but it’s Virat Kohli who has the greater capacity to do so.

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  1. I’ll be there on days 2-4, readers. Be warned: whenever I go to Old Trafford, at least one of two things happens: we lose or it rains. No-one seems overly concerned that the Pataudi Trophy is still on the line here so I will be cheering heavily for that and bringing along my massively-oversized cardboard and tinfoil replica. Look out for me on the evening news.

  2. Fab article, as ever. Much to unpack, as they say.

    Re bowlers’ workloads. Root basically broke Jofra Archer by over-bowling him at the start of his Test career. Have England acknowledged or learned from that? Is Jimmy destined to end up knackered and broken, rather than riding Mark Wood’s imaginary horse on a glorious victory lap around the SCG? And whither Stuart Broad in all of this?

    Re the ‘Player A vs Player B’ debate. I wouldn’t bring Buttler back for the fifth Test. He’s been in rotten form, and I reckon Pope and Bairstow both deserve to keep their places. But Jos is Joe’s good mate. Whither mateship in all of this?

    Then of course you have the mental health implications of playing All Of The Cricket, All Of The Time. Still, at least Tom Harrison is getting a nice juicy bonus. Happy days.

      1. …not since Googie’s funeral…

        My bugbear is the hopeless presentation of the county championship division tables on both Cricinfo & the BBC website; both differently showing flawed and partial information. There’s a gap in the market there, IMHO, just crying out for the King Cricket treatment.

        Whither county championship coverage; whiter King Cricket doing requests…

      2. I did intend to express what a superb article this was too, but got sidetracked by nonsense.

        I have also noticed the bizarre county championship second-phase tables, Ged, but they appear to be correct on BBC now, if still a confusing way of conveying the information. Somerset’s standing is somewhat better than I had hoped, carrying forward half a win and half a draw to go with the two innings demolitions in phase 2. ‘We were lucky to get 0.5!’

        The tale of Luke Hollman with nine wickets thus far vs Sussex yet deployed as 5th bowler in each innings by Dial M perhaps illustrates Root’s folly perfectly…

      3. Happy and slightly taken aback that people seem to like this one.

        It would be good to know what people liked before we started writing.

      4. Feeling that we have a licence to get side-tracked by nonsense is one of the main reasons that many of us come here, Mike.

        Tenfer for young Luke in the end. Wonderful to see a young leggie doing that well on a flattie. The lad can bat a bit too.

  3. Very good article and spot on about the bowling usage by Root. The main couple of issues revolve around the role of Moeen Ali and the spin option that is generally thought of as a better bet, Leach. For Leach to play, and this applies especially in Australia, he has to have Chris Woakes in the team, as a tail of Wood, Robinson, Anderson and Leach is too long. If Woakes plays at eight, in place of Anderson, then England can afford Leach at number 10 or 11. However, as England cannot remove themselves from the umbilical cord that is Anderson and Broad, they will play one of them in Australia, thereby necessitating the need for Ai at number 8. As an alternative, you could play Ali at 7, Woakes at 8 and then Robinson, Wood and Anderson (which is what they will probably do) but that would take us back to the main point of this article; that Root cannot trust his lower ranking bowlers to perform, in this case Ali. If England were finally brave enough to pick the best 4 bowlers: Robinson, Woakes, Wood and Leach, then this matter would not arise. They have to move on from Anderson (who normally fails to strike with the new ball and is a spent force in the second innings) and Broad (who is averaging 40 this year per wicket). The problems with England’s batting are well-known, but the issues at the top of the bowling less so. I suspect that Silverwood (Test bowling average of 40.36) does not have the balls to end the Test careers of these greats.

  4. Player A vs Player B is a pointless argument *in retrospect* – it is a very important and perfectly justified debate before the start of the match. Kohli not picking Ashwin was a terrible decision on a pitch which was not doing much for fast bowlers toward the end. Horses for courses and all that. Kohli simply got lucky that England imploded on the last day – this is largely because most modern teams these days are only used to binary results and cannot bat for a draw. If the tables were turned and India was batting on the last day facing the same target, it is almost guaranteed England would’ve won. And then everything you wrote about India would be true for England (Curran vs Overton or anything like that), and everything you wrote about England would be true for India (Bumrah was overworked etc.).

    1. Best of all it was the last over of the innings, with the number 10 batsman watching on from the other end – which may explain why he felt so compelled to hit it! Malhotra finished on 173 not out. Impressive bearing in mind the next highest score was 22, and the total 271/9.

  5. Is Overton fit though? If so, he’s lucky and that blow from Yadav did less damage than I thought it would.

  6. Looks like we are going to get a game, for a few hours there I was worried that the tickets I effectively bought in 2019 for a game in 2020 that took place without fans so was transferred to a game in 2021 was going to end up being transferred to 2022 when there will be no Tests at Old Trafford, raising the prospect that it could have then subsequently have been transferred to 2023….

    1. Test cricket fans being the way they are, you imagine pretty much all the surviving ticket holders would probably still turn up.

    2. Cricinfo “breaking news” in the last few minutes (c8:45 BST) suggests a postponement or worse, while the BBC has not updated its headline that the game is to go ahead as scheduled.

      Meanwhile the KC headline to this piece seems strangely prescient regardless of whether the match goes ahead as planned, has a delayed start or is cancelled.

      1. Oooft. I was pretty much ready to turn the key in the ignition and drive on down to the north when I heard the news. Pretty pissed off to be honest. We’re only slightly out of pocket but it’s something we’d been looking forward to for ages. Cannot help but think it’s mainly greed-driven to protect the more lucrative IPL and if that’s the case the BCCI can, quite frankly, go fuck themselves. A bad day for test cricket.

  7. It’s official now sadly. The fifth LV=Insurance test match between Byju’s India and Cinch England at Emirates Old Trafford stands cancelled.

      1. Complicated business. But surely an inevitable consequence of playing All Of The Cricket, All Of The Time.

        Agnew’s interview with Tom Harrison on TMS was ludicrous. 15 minutes of gentle half-volleys, obligingly patted back down the pitch.

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