As England battled hard for a draw in the fourth Test at the SCG, memories of a similar fightback flashed across the brow. Just a year ago, an injury-ravaged India batted out 130-odd overs to save the Sydney Test, and with it, their hopes of a World Test Championship final. As the Indian batting line-up stood tall, two of them stood taller – R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari.
Twelve months is a long time in international cricket, made even longer with all the Covid-19 and bio-bubble restrictions. If Ashwin and Vihari sit down for a conversation today, they will perhaps find yet another point to bond over. Their fight for survival, which began in the fourth innings at Sydney, has stretched out for more than a year now. Only, it has gone from survival at the crease to a fight for fitting into India’s Test plans.
After 83 Tests and 430 wickets, it is a wonder that Ashwin finds himself in this situation. Ahead of the Cape Town Test, Virat Kohli said that ‘Ashwin can fulfil the role of spin all-rounder in any conditions’. Did he really mean it? He is undoubtedly India’s best Test spinner currently, and one of the two best spin all-rounders around, yet he sat out all four Tests in England. Would Ashwin have played any of the three Tests in South Africa if Ravindra Jadeja were fit?
It is a never-ending discussion for another day, albeit one that has a lot of numbers thrown into the mix. But what would Vihari give for the opportunity to feature in 83 Tests, like Ashwin, or even 57, like Jadeja?
What would Vihari have given to play in Cape Town?
Mere number of matches, however, cannot be the simplest justification. Cricket, like any other team sport, finds utility in different players and the chosen eleven always has to be the sum of different parts. The value of an Ashwin or a Jadeja isn’t comparable to another player, expected to perform a different role. It is a false equivalence by those metrics alone. The team management, or anybody else arguing his case, thus, has to find Vihari’s relevance in the role that he performs.
It just so happens that there are relevant metrics available.
Let’s begin with numbers 13 and 14. It is the number of Tests both Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have featured in across 2021. Pujara averaged just 28.08 in those 14 Tests, while Rahane averaged 20.82 in 13 matches. Add to it, Virat Kohli’s struggles – average 28.21 in 11 Tests in 2021 – and India’s middle order was nearly a set of walking wickets for much of the past year or so.
As India collapsed for 202 all out in the Johanessburg Test’s first innings, with Kohli absent, Pujara out for 3 and Rahane for a duck, there was only one thought. How could Indian cricket let this middle-order problem fester for the past 12 months? It wasn’t for a lack of options, for Vihari was right there, all along, sitting on the bench.
“The way Pujara and Rahane batted in the last Test – that experience is priceless for us,” said Kohli ahead of the third Test.
Indeed, their partnership nearly set up the game for India. For both senior batsmen, these were valuable half-centuries in Johannesburg, coming after five innings each. The value of experience can be measured in such moments. What about consistency though?
This is where Vihari’s non-selection comes to the fore. The England tour provided a marked opportunity to give him another go, especially as both Pujara and Rahane struggled through the series. It could have been an easy like-for-like replacement. Vihari trusts his defence and likes to take his time at the crease. Technically correct, he is never in a hurry to score runs, the one aspect wherein he is a proper Pujara replacement for number three.
Vihari’s knocks in Johannesburg illustrated this amply. Batting at five, he came in at 49-3 and faced the second-highest number of deliveries (53) in that first innings. Yes, he scored only 20 runs but are we really going to judge someone on runs in his first knock in a year? If the answer is yes, he did score 40 not out in the second innings, facing the second highest number of deliveries (84), two short of Pujara’s tally (86).
A higher number of runs, say a half-century for the record books, could have made for greater impact in the scheme of things. Even so, there is that fighter’s tenacity, another style straight from the Pujara-Rahane copybook, a trait that cannot be numerically measured.
This, right here, is the equivalence we are seeking. Why is it going unnoticed in the eyes of those who matter?
Back in Australia, both senior batsmen stood up at different times for India. Vihari did much the same in Sydney. Once their struggles began in England, the team management’s indecision in handing him an opportunity then is surprisingly staggering. Thereafter, the selectors’ forgetfulness for the home series against New Zealand, and then sending him forward on the ‘A’ tour to South Africa, is apocalyptically embarrassing.
At this juncture, you can only wonder if Indian cricket is well run at present. The captaincy shenanigans before this current South African tour point towards a negative answer. And matters of prime concern, such as a flailing middle order, are lost in all that drama.
From January 11, 2021, to January 11, 2022, Vihari sat twiddling thumbs, for most part, losing out almost a year of international cricket. From Sydney to Cape Town then, how do you measure this opportunity cost to him?
Indian cricket, again, has no answers.
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