It’s a natural cycle for all teams except that the high number of injuries has made it more challenging for India
Can India’s inexperienced quicks master the Caribbean challenge?
West Indies are at an all-time low after failing to qualify for the World Cup, but they remain a Test-match force in their own backyard
India’s pace attack on the Test tour of the West Indies carries a total experience of 88 Test wickets between them; Mohammed Siraj, the leader of the pack, has 52. The last time India played a whole Test series without a single fast bowler with 100 wickets was against West Indies in 2013-14 at home where fast bowling didn’t really matter that much.
For a series in conditions where you need at least three fast bowlers, you need to go to the current coach Rahul Dravid’s playing days: the 2011 tour of the West Indies. All it has taken to get such a raw attack is for one bowler, Mohammed Shami, to be rested. India seem to have moved on from Ishant Sharma. We don’t know if, how much, or how effectively Jasprit Bumrah will play Test cricket. Umesh Yadav is either injured or dropped, but he is anyway on the wrong side of 35.
This has not happened all of a sudden but this is the point where the realisation is right in the face: the great Indian Test team is in transition. Great as the spinners are, especially with their added contribution with the bat, India have had great spinners operating in tandem before. What really set this team apart from other Indian teams was the unprecedented availability of at least three fit, experienced and high-pace fast bowlers at any given point of time.
India’s scarcely believable, freakish series win in Australia in 2020-21 seems to have spoilt the Indian fan, media and even the board. That’s probably why India’s defeat in the World Test Championship final – final, mind you – was casually called a disaster or a debacle. India were up against the only team in Test history to feature four bowlers with 200 or more wickets, a side which could afford to rest one of them because of the impending Ashes. In conditions that favoured fast bowling so much that India didn’t even play R Ashwin.
India might not have a title to show for it, but they have dominated Test cricket in as much as is possible in an era where most international sides are equally professional. They have lost just three home Tests in 10 years, won consecutive Test series in Australia, drawn one in England, and come agonisingly close to winning one in South Africa. They have made both of the WTC finals despite a freakish number of injuries since the start of that Australia tour in 2020-21.
Expectations, though, need to be tempered now. Amid the euphoria of the World Cup win in 2011 and the bold assertion of the BCCI in cricket politics and economy, it was almost forgotten what a weak pace attack India had in 2011, which led to eight straight Test defeats in England and Australia. If not such drastic reversals, we should be prepared for at least a downturn of some degree from this team in transition.
And don’t get swayed by their failure to qualify for the ODI World Cup, West Indies are a potent threat at home. They have beaten England in successive home series, drawn with Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but have been dominated by India and South Africa.
West Indies’ pace attack has only got better since they lost to India in 2019. Kemar Roach is among the top-five wicket-takers for West Indies, Shannon Gabriel is headed towards the top 10, the allrounder Jason Holder averages under 30 with the ball, and Alzarri Joseph is nearing his prime.
Although historically Rosseau and Port of Spain are not known to be so, if West Indies can somehow create surfaces that take India’s spinners out of the equation, don’t be surprised if the visitors are in trouble in the series.
It is not just a bowling transition for India. The future of the team’s leadership, you would assume, depends on how the World Cup goes, which means the captain and the coach can’t quite formulate longer-term plans yet.
The selectors, who have to maintain some sort of continuity, seem to have started playing their shots. They seem to be mindful they don’t want to be blooding two or three rookie batters all at the same time. That’s why Yashasvi Jaiswal is all set to replace Cheteshwar Pujara at No. 3. Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane are closer to the end of their careers than the middle.
This is a natural cycle for all teams except that the unexpectedly high number of injuries has made it more challenging for India. There are injuries and age in the bowling department, uncertainties around batters and captains, and the game-changing wicketkeeper is indefinitely out after his car crash at the turn of this year.
The situation is not too different from when India went to the West Indies in 2011. They rested Zaheer Khan, and suddenly they had an inexperienced attack. The initial replacements either didn’t have express pace or lacked supreme fitness. It took about four years of rebuild and the introduction of a freakish generational talent in Bumrah for India to reach a level where they compete in almost all conditions in the world.
There are two more important away tours at the end of this year (South Africa) and the next (Australia) on which hinge India’s chances of making it to the WTC final. India will have done extremely well if the expectations remain high by the end of this cycle.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo