London: Battered and bruised in the last two matches, it will be a test of character for India`s underperforming players as they go into the fifth and final Test against England here Friday, hoping to restore their pride and level the series.
India have slipped badly after their historic win at the Lord`s with humiliating defeats in Southampton and Manchester and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men have a daunting task of saving the series, which they are trailing 1-2. While the young batting line-up has crumbled time and again the bowling has not all looked penetrative which has allowed the hosts to stage a dramatic turnaround.
India however have got a big boost with lanky paceman Ishant Sharma being fit for the final game. The team management however face a selection dilemma on whether to retain some of the out-of-form players like Ravindra Jadeja or try out the bench strength. India`s batting has been a huge let down in the last two Test and the visitors need Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara to do justice to their talent and potential. Pujara, not part of the ODI team, will have only one more chance to come good. Kohli will do himself great harm if runs continue to elude him at the Oval. For, on the blades of these two batsmen, rests India`s best shot at redemption.
Gautam Gambhir has been under pressure in his comeback trail but it`s time that the Delhi southpaw shows that he still belongs to the top league. If he manages to stay at the crease for a long time, it would set up India well in their long fight to save the series. India would certainly be bolstered by the expected inclusion of fit-again Ishant, who had orchestrated their famous victory at the Lord`s. The gangly Ishant is like to replace Pankaj Singh as Varun Aaron impressed with his ability to generate pace and trouble the English batsmen.
Jadeja`s place has come under threat after the insignificant role he played at Manchester. His presence as a fifth bowler might have been desired but his batting has tipped the scales towards Stuart Binny, who has shown the promise to be a lot more considerate in his approach. Binny and R Ashwin batted in the nets while Jadeja was conspicuously absent from slip-catching practice. Rohit Sharma loitered around, getting a hit very late. India appear set to play five bowlers again, without changing around too much.
Everything had looked in place for India after their historic 95-run victory at Lord`s but since then England have registered a remarkable turnaround, winning their first match in 11 Tests at Southampton and later they trounced India inside three-days at Manchester. Post-defeat at Old Trafford, Ishant alone turned up for nets to check on his fitness and availability for the final Test. It can be argued that the Indian team needed to take their minds off cricket for a while after an abject surrender, and then wage a fresh battle with renewed vigour. But that defeat in less than eight sessions of play was not down to cluttered minds or over-fatigued bodies.
Instead it was largely down to a lack of application to stay at the crease in face of adverse conditions weather induced or otherwise. It was because of the same casual attitude that they attacked Moeen Ali when they should have resisted. It was the absence of any determination or awareness about the impending rain on their part which cost them a lucky chance to draw the game and get out of jail. When skipper MS Dhoni will step out for the toss with counterpart Alastair Cook, he will equal Sourav Ganguly`s record of having led India in 28 Tests overseas.
Ganguly won 11 of those matches, lost 10 and drew the rest. Dhoni`s figures meanwhile are less impressive, with 6 wins, 8 draws and 13 losses.
There have been times in the past where Dhoni has proven his methods to be awe-inspiring. Those moments however, dating from 2007 onwards, have mostly come in the limited-overs arena. His magical touch seems to be missing when it concerns the longest format of the game. Another overseas Test-series loss could make the lack of a captaincy alternative a suffocating issue. But that debate can wait until after the game, for luck just might afford Dhoni one last roll of the dice. From England`s point of view, Stuart Broad, who suffered a broken nose at Old Trafford, is expected to play. The English England all-rounder is slated to undergo knee surgery shortly and this might force him into an early rest straight after the Test series.
That aside, England hardly have any problems to ponder over. If at all, there is a concern over the form of opener Sam Robson. There have been calls to replace him and test a fresh face in that position. But such has been the momentum gained by the hosts that they have keenly handed him another chance.
India: MS Dhoni (c & wk), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Stuart Binny, R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishwar Pandey, Pankaj Singh, Varun Aaron, Naman Ojha.
England: Alastair Cook (c), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad, Chris Jordan, Jos Buttler (wk), Sam Robson, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Steve Finn.