This is the question Ravi Shastri tried to answer as coach of the Indian side.
It has been the perennial question. Here’s a history of how India have tried to answer it in successive generations. This is a history with periods in which the right answer was attempted, often with bad results, and periods of retreat into respectability of a draw, often with mixed results.
Lets begin in the 1980s, a period of relative success for India outside Asia given what was to come in the 1990s. The answer to Shastri’s question has always been obvious - fast bowling. Where to find the fast bowlers though? In India in that period, the fast bowlers came in the guise of seam bowling all rounders - Ghavri, Binny, Madan Lal, Chetan Sharma and Manoj Prabhakar. Kapil Dev was world class while Mohinder Amarnath, and to a significantly lesser and more sporadic extent, Sandeep Patil, were more batsman than batting all-rounder.
The charts below give the fast bowlers and spinners who bowled at least 5 % of India’s overs in each Test.
In the 1980s:
This was a period in which India had an abundance of what Duncan Fletcher would later treasure as “two-skilled players” (Fletcher’s exemplifying case was his preference for Ashley Giles over Monty Panesar, and Geraint Jones over better wicketkeepers). India tried to play seamers in conditions where the ball was supposed to seam, but they just didn’t have them. In 1986, when India won in England under Kapil Dev, they called up Madan Lal from the Lancashire Leagues for the Leeds Test, ahead of Manoj Prabhakar, and won. English reports at the time marveled at the fact that England had been beaten by an attack which, apart from Kapil Dev, boasted of no-one better than a first change bowler in the average County side.
Under Azharuddin and Tendulkar:
The story continued in the 1990s, with a potentially purer set of fast bowlers. Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Subroto Banerjee, Paras Mhambrey, Abey Kuruvilla, Dodda Ganesh, David Johnson, all played for India. Sourav Ganguly emerged as a capable fifth bowler, and both Tendulkar and Azharuddin were tempted to think of him as the third seamer.
The pure fast bowlers could rarely bat though, and the fast bowlers who could bat were not as good. The risk of playing the former was fewer runs while batting in exchange for the chance of winning from time to time, while the latter provided late order runs and respectability, even if they basically meant that there’s was no chance of winning.
There was, of course, no question of playing 5 bowlers.
Under Ganguly and then Dravid:
Wright and Ganguly had a new generation of fast bowlers with whom they could continue the experiment. There were the out and out bowlers - Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Venkatesh Prasad, Javagal Srinath (even though these two were aging), Tinu Yohannan - and then there were the shinier objects, the seam bowlers who could hold a bat - Ajit Agarkar, Irfan Pathan and Sanjay Bangar.
Wright and Ganguly started out with three pure fast bowlers. They lost in South Africa and West Indies. In West Indies in 2002, there was much talk of “the long Indian tail” and the “extra pressure on the middle order”. The defeats in Barbados and Jamaica seemed to persuade Wright and Ganguly to retreating from the approach of playing three pure fast bowlers. And they never did after that. Agarkar or Pathan always played, and scored runs. Agarkar scored and ultimately pointless hundred at Lord’s (he went for 3/153 in only 32 overs in the Test), and Pathan contributed lower order runs regularly.
But this also basically meant, as Kohli would have put it, that India were playing for only two results. It meant respectability. The keeper was picked for his batting too. Parthiv Patel and Deep Dasgupta both played Tests for India ahead of better wicketkeepers because they could bat.
That Indian batting line up chockablock with household names required a lot of assurance down the order, even on the flat pitches of that era.
Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid pursued 20 wickets with renewed vigor when they took charge of proceedings. India even left VVS Laxman out for an extra bowler at Bombay in 2006 and lost against England. Dravid was pilloried for this choice, even though it was a good idea. S. Sreesanth, Munaf Patel and Vikram Veer Singh played as fast bowlers ahead of Irfan Pathan because they were better bowlers. With Kumble and Harbhajan Singh available, this was a good idea. The two spin maestros played together only three times under Sourav Ganguly outside Asia (at PE in 2001, and then at Leeds and The Oval in 2002), and twice under Dravid (in West Indies in 2006). With Sehwag and Tendulkar in the side, India thought much as England do today with Joe Root in their ranks.
Chappell and Dravid did demonstrate that playing three fast bowlers purely for their fast bowling was a good idea, even at the cost of a longer tail. India won Tests in West Indies, South Africa and England, and series in WI and ENG under Rahul Dravid.
But then, Rahul Dravid quit in September 2007, and Anil Kumble led for the next three. Happily, the policy about fast bowlers continued.
Since then, the policy has basically been the party-line for India in overseas Tests. The bowlers have changed. Under Dhoni, we got to see that absent quality, it was not possible to compete sustainably overseas when the wickets were not flat and the draw was not an option. India’s fast bowlers needed helpful conditions to dismiss the opposition cheaply enough. When that happened, as was the case in NZ, and in South Africa in 2009 and 2010/11, they were able to win Test matches. When it didn’t, they weren’t. Such was India’s belief in the policy, that even when they were comically short of personnel in England in 2011, they recruited RP Singh from his vacation in Florida instead of doing what they would have done, had the problem arisen in the era before Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell took charge - played the extra spinner, or the extra batsman. RP Singh did not have a good game.
Eventually, the fast bowlers got fitter, stronger, more skilfull and, crucially, more numerous. India got to a point where raw pace was no longer enough for an Indian fast bowler to make the Test squad, as it had been for Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav (who developed differently) in the Dhoni era.
India still pursued the holy grail - the seam bowling all rounder. But consider the quality of the candidates who made it. Hardik Pandya is at least as quick as Ajit Agarkar, and quicker than Irfan Pathan, and arguably, a better bowler than both of them. Shardul Thakur is admittedly inexplicable. But there is no question today of either of them being considered as anything other than the 5th bowler. Nor is there any question that India will play a fifth bowler overseas.
Could that change? It could. If India had three bowlers as good as Jasprit Bumrah, it could. But currently, they don’t.