Despite another day where they registered low scores, India batting coach Vikram Rathour on Sunday backed under-pressure Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to deliver.
The senior batters of the Indian Test side were part of a collapse that left India in a mighty precarious position early on day four of the match against New Zealand in Kanpur. But Shreyas Iyer and the lower middle order helped India recover and take upper hand.
With Iyer scoring 105 and 65 on debut, it once again raised questions about who makes way for Virat Kohli when he returns to lead the side. Understandably, Rathour had to fend questions on Pujara and Rahane’s form going into the Mumbai Test starting on December 3.
“Of course, you want the top-order to contribute but cricketers (Pujara and Rahane) you mentioned they have played 80 (79 for Rahane) and 90 Tests (91 Test for Pujara),” Rathour said after the day’s play.
“To play that many games, they must have done well for us,”
Currently, the 2021 Test average of Rahane is 19.57 and 30.42 for Pujara.
“We understand that both of them are going through a lean phase but we understand that they have both played very, very important knocks for us in the past. We are pretty sure that they are going to come back and play important knocks for us,” Rathour’s statement lacked conviction.
But what’s the kind of long rope that one gives a senior player, who has been a past performer? Rathour, who played six Tests during the 1996-97 season, felt that it can’t be quantified.
“I don’t think you can put a number to that. It really depends on situation the team is in and what the team is required to do,” he said.
There is now a question as to who will make way for Kohli. The Indian team has in the past maintained that if a senior player returns from a break, the player making way would be the younger player who was brought in.
“Captain coming back in, that will happen in next game and we will get to that point when we reach Mumbai. The focus is on this game and there is a day to go and a game to be won. We will get to that point when we get in Mumbai,” Rathour said.
But when asked if that meant Shreyas Iyer will keep his place after his record-breaking Test debut, Rathour added: “Once we land in Mumbai, we will take that call, what our playing XI is going to be.”
It is evidently going to be a tightrope walk for the Indian team management when its best batter comes back in the next game. Speaking in the Star Sports studio after day four play, former India cricketer VVS Laxman said, “Don’t think Dravid or Kohli will leave out Rahane which unfortunately will force them to leave out someone who has had a fantastic debut. Unfortunate but that’s been the rule as far as this Indian team is concerned.”
But maybe there are other options? If both Pujara and Rahane must be backed, and Iyer keeps his place, Mayank Agarwal could make way (also struggling for runs) and Pujara could slot in as an opener, something he has done in the past. Agarwal (13 and 17) looked scratchy in Kanpur while Shubman Gill got at least one half century, albeit riding his luck.
Either way, irrespective of how the match pans out in Kanpur, it is an issue that is going to leave opinions divided.
The other dilemma facing the team is the fitness of Wriddhiman Saha, who batted with his stiff neck issue after not keeping wickets on day three. In case Saha doesn’t get fit, then KS Bharat, who has been a red ball opener with a triple hundred in first-class cricket, could be tried out as an opener too.
Rathour was all praise for ‘ideal team man’ Saha.
“He had a really, really stiff neck and knowing Saha who is an ideal team man, he is going to do whatever is required,” Rathour said.
“He would do the tough things for the team and he played an extremely important knock at the stage the team was at that point. That is what we always expect from Wriddhi. He has always been that kind of a person, whom we can count on and today he showed why,” Rathour said.
But as things stand, the Bengal wicketkeeper who is the oldest member of the current Test squad, remains a stop-gap for Rishabh Pant.
“As far as Wriddhi is concerned, unfortunately for him, we have an extremely special player Rishabh, who is number one keeper for us and has done extremely well in past few years. That’s the role (No. 2) Wriddhi has at the moment that we need him when Pant is not available,” Rathour said.
Speaking about Iyer’s exciting debut, Rathour said: “It’s always exciting when a debutant comes in and scores a hundred and that’s very special. I thought he looked even better in the second innings, all credit to him. It’s exciting as a support staff to see somebody walking in and doing it for the team. He showed he is a confident young guy, uses his feet very very well against spin.”
The coaching staff over the past two years during Ravi Shastri’s regime have been working with the lower order’s batting and it was once again proving handy.
“This is a deliberate effort from our side that we have been trying to give them lot more batting whenever we are having nets. That’s what we have done for couple of years and that strategy is paying off.
“We have seen in the past and what other teams have done against us and other teams have put up totals after we have taken 4-5 wickets. So good to see we are doing that now and doing it repeatedly,” Rathour said.
(With PTI inputs)
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