India don’t need all-rounders at home or anywhere in Asia, not as long as Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are averaging 28.43 and 39.44 with the bat. Play two fast bowlers and two spinners and India almost always pick 20 wickets at ridiculous averages everywhere in the subcontinent.
But the equations change whenever India leave the continent. Five bowlers become compulsory. And even though the official stance is six specialist batters are enough, deep down there is insecurity that compels seeking a backup—ergo the all-rounder used occasionally. He must bat with some degree of authority but more importantly, he has to be a good change bowler. It’s a thankless job, considering no outstanding performance will guarantee a place in the team if the next Test is at home. Shardul Thakur scored 69 runs and took seven wickets in the Gabba win but didn’t get a game in the home series against England right after the Australia tour. But that is how it is.
India have been extremely careful about picking all-rounders on overseas tours. Of the nine Tests India have won in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia)countries since January 2018, only twice have India fielded four bowlers—in Adelaide and Melbourne during the 2018 Australia tour owing to an extra batter played. Johannesburg in 2018 was the only occasion India fielded five pacers, including Hardik Pandya as all-rounder. In the other six wins, India always fielded four fast bowlers and one spinner with either Pandya or Jadeja (picked over Ashwin, quite controversially at times) or Thakur being the all-rounder. Brisbane however was an exception where India accidentally got two all-rounders in Thakur and Washington Sundar after more than half the squad was out due to injury.
Their phenomenal abilities notwithstanding, genuine fast bowling all-rounders such as Garry Sobers, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee and Ian Botham rarely had seasons that were as taxing as many international players now. They would usually play eight or 10 Tests and barring Sobers, who played one ODI, and less than 20 limited-over internationals in a season. Apart from Dev, they also had long and glittering county careers but in sum, the demands physically were possibly not as intense as they are now.
Most cricketers are picked because of a primary skill and only with time and diligent polishing do they develop a secondary skill. If Wasim Akram started as an out and out swing bowler, Jacques Kallis too began as a specialist batter. But with multi-format cricket now being the norm and Test specialists becoming a thing, an India all-rounder doesn’t necessarily have to be the best in a particular skill as long he is contributing. But he has to bowl—Virat Kohli is fairly unambiguous about that. Last year, when he was asked if the recovering Pandya could be eventually considered for Tests, Kohli said: “We need him to bowl. That’s when he becomes that one guy who brings a lot of balance for us. If you’ve seen our cricket overseas as well, in South Africa and England, we were able to compete for longer periods through Test matches because of the fact that he brought a lot of balance in terms of his bowling.”
Focus on primary skill
The balance Kohli was talking about is pitch-specific—like Jadeja playing on slower pitches in Melbourne, Lord’s and The Oval and Thakur being drafted for Brisbane, The Oval, Centurion and in Johannesburg in the ongoing series. Dictating this selection is invariably the all-rounders’ primary skill. So if he plays on batting-friendly pitches, his better batting figures should compensate for the lesser bowling figures, the reverse being true on bowler-friendly pitches. With that in mind, let’s recap the highs of Jadeja and Thakur in the wins they were part of since 2018.
In Melbourne, 2018, Jadeja took 2/45 and 3/82. Two years later at the same venue, he took three wickets but, more importantly, scored 57 to help India gain a decisive first-innings lead. At Lord’s in 2021, Jadeja didn’t get any wicket but marshalled India’s first innings to 364 with a 120-ball 40 before being the last wicket to fall. Runs eluded him at The Oval but Jadeja took 2/36 in the first innings, including the wicket of Moeen Ali to break a 71-run stand with Ollie Pope, and 2/50 in the second innings, one of the scalps being Haseeb Hameed who top-scored with 63.
Thakur, despite his brief career, has already set the bar quite high. His 7/61 in Johannesburg—best figures for any India bowler against South Africa—is a timely reminder that there is more to the Indian pace attack than Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami or Mohammed Siraj. And the fact that no India pacer before Thakur had more than five wickets in a Test innings coming in as second change or later also validates his competence at this level. There will be occasions—like at Centurion—where he won’t be called upon to bowl much but even there Thakur played his part by removing Quinton de Kock when he was threatening to build a partnership with Temba Bavuma in the first innings. That way, Thakur is the perfect fourth seamer.
The ability to contribute with the bat too boosts Thakur’s credentials and makes him a serious contender to be the medium-pacer all-rounder India always wanted abroad. Each of his three half-centuries—67 in Brisbane and 57 and 60 at Oval—contributed to famous Test wins. The Oval Test was almost lost in the first innings had it not been Thakur’s 36-ball 57, an assault that England were not expecting. He continued in the same vein next innings as well, boosting India to an imposing 466. It’s not only the runs but also the manner in which he scores them that makes Thakur such a fascinating character of the game. Still early days but Thakur already has a strike rate of 75.57 with 168 out of his career aggregate of 232 runs coming in fours and sixes, meaning he doesn’t believe in wasting time. That can mean a stunning counterattack of authentic shots—be it whipping Chris Woakes from his off-stump over long-on or pulling Ollie Robinson over deep-square at the Oval—or even throwing the kitchen sink at Marco Jansen in Johannesburg where an attempted pull sailed over the wicketkeeper’s head for a six. Every run matters and Thakur has been getting them pretty convincingly till date. And that can be hugely comforting at a time India’s top-order is not always firing.