Here we are again, ahead of a Test series featuring India and the discussions are all about the team selection.
On Tuesday, ahead of the first Test between India and South Africa starting on October 2, Virat Kohli once again proved that change is the only constant for him. Sticking to his leadership style that has constantly raised eyebrows in Test cricket, the Indian captain announced that Wriddhiman Saha will take over the gloves from Rishabh Pant as India named their XI.
Just when the world thought that Rohit Sharma’s new lease of life in Test cricket as an opener will be the biggest talking point going into the Vizag Test, Kohli dropped a bombshell of sorts saying Pant, who has had a phenomenal start to his career in the longest format, will make way for Saha as the Proteas come calling.
Two sides to the argument
There has been a sense of shock in some sections of the fan-base over Pant getting sidelined from the format he has been the most comfortable in. Last season, he became the first visiting wicketkeeper-batsman in the history of the game to score a century in his first Test tours of both England and Australia. He averages a tad over 44 in 11 Tests so far, with two centuries and two near-centuries. While he has looked overwhelmed in white-ball cricket for India, seemingly under pressure in every match that he walks out to bat these days, he has been rather at ease in Tests; helped perhaps by the time he has to make an impact.
Saha, on the other hand, is more of a utility batsman and has largely played valuable cameos with the bat, rather than innings of substantial impact. Make no mistake, if it was down to just willow skills, Pant is significantly ahead of Saha.
Going by what Kohli said in the press conference, however, the decision to drop Pant has got nothing to do with the batting skills but it’s rather Saha’s superior wicketkeeping skills that have helped the veteran get the nod.
There’s no doubt that Pant is a work in progress as a wicketkeeper, and Saha is a class act behind the stumps in subcontinent conditions. The question remains that how will Pant improve his skills as ‘keeper if he doesn’t get to play a season with Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja doing their magic. But with the ICC World Test Championships, Kohli’s focus seems to be on winning every Test over any long-term planning (a trait that has been visible in backing Rohit as the opener, given the short-term advantages of that move turning out to be a success, instead of looking too far into the future).
“Yes, Saha is fit and fine to go, and he’s going to start for us, this series, and his ‘keeping credentials are there for everyone to see,” Kohli said at the pre-series press conference. “He’s played well for us whenever he’s got a chance, with the bat also, and it was unfortunate that he was out for such a long period because of an injury, and according to me he’s the best ‘keeper in the world, so in these conditions, with what he’s done in the past, he starts for us.”
While it’s easy to think Pant’s batting form in other formats might have played a role, Kohli made it clear that Saha was always going to take his place back in Tests; it was just a question of when the management thought the Bengal gloveman was ready.
Correction decision? Time will tell...
Ever since the overseas leg started in South Africa last year, the surprises have come thick and fast from this team management in Test cricket. Ajinkya Rahane was dropped for Rohit, then selected again. Rohit was dropped in South Africa, left out in England and brought back in Australia. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was dropped for the second Test in South Africa after his impressive performance in the first, even when there was a green pitch on offer. Cheteshwar Pujara was left out at the start of the series in England. There was the Jadeja saga in Australia, where India played without a spinner in Perth: the only match they would go on to lose in the series. And most recently, a fully-fit Ashwin being overlooked in the Caribbean. During all this, the openers’ slots have been a merry-go-round unto themselves.
This is not even an exhaustive list, but you could already see that a few of these decisions worked out alright for India in terms of their overall results, while a few spectacularly backfired. Under Kohli’s captaincy and Ravi Shastri’s reign as the head coach, the management has shown a tendency to overdo the horses for courses policy. Gut-feel and instincts have dominated team selections in Tests over consistency or grounded logic.
But the team is still the best in the world for a reason.
In comparison to those aforementioned selection calls, choosing Saha over Pant for a home series against South Africa is not even the most outrageous. Where consistency in decision-making usually comes under the scanner, the management is now taking the call to back their best specialist ‘keeper who has had his share of misfortunes with an injury. The same happened in the past with Karun Nair, who made a triple century while filling in for Rahane, but duly made way for the vice-captain eventually.
The latest surprise from Kohli perhaps feels a bit odd, or even shocking, because of all the talk surrounding Pant recently (where we have been told he will be backed to the hilt, only to be dropped now), but take the emotion out of the decision and strip it down to first principles: it makes sense.
One can only hope that Pant has been told what is what, and that he does not suffer a crisis on confidence in the long term because he is the future.
There is no clear winner in this debate, but we would all do well to remember that Kohli has always been a huge fan of Saha’s ‘keeping on turning tracks. Remember a Test in Sri Lanka in 2017, where on a vicious pitch, Saha conceded just four byes in 166 overs, standing up to the likes of Jadeja and Ashwin. One cannot begrudge a man, who has spent all his career in the shadows of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, getting another chance at 34 to show he still has it in him to be the best.