Among the many reasons for India’s defeat in the second Test against Australia in Perth, the one that has got all the column inches and air time on television analysis is Virat Kohli’s team selection.
Perhaps, rightly so.
When the player of the match is the opponent’s front-line spinner who took eight wickets on a pitch where you thought a regular spinner was not even required, then that is bound to happen. Kohli might not think so, but it was an error that proved costly, make no mistake.
But, the beauty of Test cricket is that, there is never one reason for a result that is five days in the making. And one of those factors that is going to give Kohli a few sleepless nights in the lead-up to the third Test in Melbourne is India’s opening combination.
M Vijay and KL Rahul scored a total of 22 runs (with a duck each to their name) in India’s 146-run defeat in Perth. In comparison, Australia’s numbers 10 and 11 scored 31 runs overall.
In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, Kohli backed his openers, of course.
“Well you just have to keep backing them and tell them that they belong and that they are good enough to perform (for the country). I mean it is not about even giving someone individual goals. It’s just telling them that this is what we require as a team from the openers and this is the role that needs to be fulfilled,” he said.
But a change at the top is now almost inevitable. Given that Prithvi Shaw has been ruled out for the rest of the series, and Mayank Agarwal has been flown in, Kohli is not short of options. There is a reason why the poll below indicates close to a majority want a combination that does not contain either Vijay or Rahul.
If it didn’t already, it sure feels like it is high time for Mayank Agarwal to be an India player. Really, what more needs to happen for him to receive his shot?
The ‘established’ openers have been given repeated chances to resurrect their form, hasn’t worked. The next-big-thing (Prithvi Shaw) suffered an unfortunate injury; won’t be playing in Australia. And all the while, one guy has been scoring runs in all formats of domestic cricket, making his case over and over.
Is it too risky to go with an untested opener making his debut for the all-important Test in Melbourne? Of course, there is risk. But there are plenty who feel Agarwal has been cut a rough deal already, when M Vijay was preferred over him in the touring squad Down Under. If anything, his chance would arrive a tad late.
Sanjay Manjrekar advised caution in playing Agarwal, stating, “If you play him, we should not have high expectations because it is extremely tough for an Indian batsman to straightaway go into a Test match on an Australian pitch, especially at the top of the order, where the Kookaburra ball does a lot.”
But that’s the thing, the expectations from the Indian openers, thanks to what has come in the series so far, are bare minimum. Surely, it can’t be worse than two openers averaging 12 and 12.25 in the series so far in their four outings.
Agarwal, driven and hungry to succeed, will have enough desire to grab the chances that he must feel he thoroughly deserves. That’s a bigger motivator to succeed than hanging on for dear life.
Parthiv Patel, Hanuma Vihari or Rohit Sharma?
Before we proceed further, let’s address a few left-field options that have been suggested. Fans on social media love a good punt in their selections and the names of Patel, Vihari and Rohit have featured prominently in this discussion. Even Cheteshwar Pujara!
By now, we should all know better than to discount the possibility of Kohli taking a risk with his selections, it’d be fair to say, at this point of time, that to completely dismantle the current opening partnership in favour of a brand new one would be a step too far. For the purposes of this discussion, we will have Agarwal as the one opener and see if which of the other two in the XI currently deserves another chance.
Before India’s chase began in Perth, Michael Clarke and Sunil Gavaskar felt that, if one of Vijay and Rahul were to retain their spot, it would be the one who did better in that innings. Rahul fell for a duck but Vijay showed some neat defensive technique to stick around even longer than Kohli did. Vijay was assured in the second innings in Adelaide as well when Rahul outscored him by being more aggressive.
Now, if Agarwal is making his debut in the Boxing Day Test, it would make sense to have the more experienced Vijay to accompany him.
But there will also be a sense of irony there? This writer felt that Vijay’s recall to the Test squad in the first place was flawed when Agarwal was left out after not getting a go in the Test series against West Indies, during which Vijay made a few runs in England playing for Essex. The logic there was baffling, but having gotten his chance in the warm-up match after Shaw’s injury, Vijay smashed a century to earn himself another go.
How long does India keep going back though? It is tiring to see the musical chair for the openers’ slot and it feels like the time to move on is now.
A young batsman of undoubted quality was once struggling in a Test series in Australia. In the first two Tests he had scored around 50 runs and there were increasing calls for him to be dropped. But the captain reportedly put his foot down and backed this youngster to come good. That was MS Dhoni trusting Virat Kohli in the 2011-’12 tour.
Kohli had scores of 23, 0, 44, 9 in the first two Tests of that tour while Rahul has scored 2, 44, 2 and 0 this time around. Of course, the two situations and the class of the two batsmen are not exactly similar. And if it were up to Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul should be on the flight back to India.
“I think that he should be coming back and playing Ranji Trophy for Karnataka. It is not just that he is out of form, he is just not there and you can see that,” was what the former captain said.
Here’s the deal: there’s no denying that Rahul has been given a long rope in overseas Tests this year. The century in the final Test at The Oval seems to have been a false dawn. He looks lost and indecisive, and it almost feels as if at this point, India would be doing a favour by keeping him out of the limelight.
But if Kohli decides to a Dhoni, the Melbourne Test might be the best chance. The pitch at MCG has favoured batsmen in the recent past and if giving one last chance to Rahul helps him get some runs under his belt and gain confidence back, it could benefit Indian cricket in the longer run. Time, however, is not Rahul’s ally and is running out fast.