For a third time in ten months, there is an opportunity to take stock of where things stand for the current Indian Test team. The first instance came last December, at the end of the three-Test series against Sri Lanka, just prior to the South African tour.
Through that series, Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay pushed KL Rahul to the third opener’s slot, while Rohit Sharma overtook Ajinkya Rahane with (well, at least in the eyes of the team management) with a couple good knocks. Both these points impacted India’s selection strategy in South Africa, leading to a series’ loss of course.
The second instance came at the end of that one-off Test against Afghanistan in Bengaluru, ahead of the English tour. It didn’t say much, for the team management was never going to make wholesale changes after the South African tour. Dhawan and Vijay stayed put, while Rahul got to bat at number three with Virat Kohli out injured. Rahane though failed to score again.
India went to England with a half-baked top-order, and this again cost them the Test series. Only this time, the result was 4-1 and it does look worse than 2-1 in South Africa. Yes, India competed as Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri tell us again and again. But even they admit – competing isn’t enough anymore. India need to win overseas, urgently, and in that sense, Australia is their final frontier (not in the same terms as Steve Waugh defined it).
You might want to ask why the need to talk about Australia now? Well, that trip isn’t too far off. Just over a month from now, the Men in Blue will land there and the Test series Down Under begins in six weeks. Yes, the series against the Windies isn’t done yet. Australia have a better chance of avoiding defeat against Pakistan at Dubai (on Thursday) than West Indies beating India in Hyderabad to level the series 1-1.
So, what is the question to ask here? Well, for starters, have India sorted out their opening conundrum ahead of Australia? What about the middle order and Rahane therein? Have they overcome their top-order problems and renewed strategy for Australia? The answer is, well, up in the air.
Look at the top-order. In an innings where three Indian batsmen scored hundreds, and wherein the minimum two-digit score in the top-order was Rahane’s 41, Rahul got out for a four-ball duck. Maybe he was unlucky; he was out on the only delivery that jagged in from a length, perhaps because the ball was new. Even so, isn’t it the job of an opener to deal with such early seam movement?
That dismissal only built on the narrative that Rahul is increasingly becoming suspect against the incoming delivery and this factoid won’t be missed by the Australian pace attack. It was something that affected him in England and brought to a stop his fine run from the summer. Ideally, he should have built on that summer form but in reality, the Karnataka batsman has only blown hot and cold this season. Given that he is now the senior-most opener in this squad, a few runs in the Hyderabad Test will be the minimum desired from him.
It shifts the focus on Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal. The former is still young (that won’t go away for a while) but that maiden Test hundred on debut only means that tough times lie ahead. Every innings from here on will be measured in expectation and judged harshly. And then there is the latter – can India even contemplate giving him game time in Hyderabad, or will the team management consider taking a newbie third-choice opener to Australia (like Rahul in 2014-15)?
Of course, the other quandary herein is regarding Rahane. There was a time when he was nearly un-droppable from the side, but that doesn’t hold true for anyone in this current Indian team’s set-up. In the past 24 months, he has scored two Test hundreds. That is a pale contribution from the vice-captain whichever way you look at it. Furthermore, since his last hundred in Sri Lanka (SSC, Colombo), he has scored 399 runs in 12 Tests at a lowly average of 19.95. This simply isn’t good enough.
Since that penultimate hundred against New Zealand in Indore (2016), and injury thereafter in the middle of 2016-17 home season, Rahane hasn’t looked the same batsman. Some of it can be blamed on constant rotation, but most of it is inexplicable really. During India’s last overseas cycle in 2014-15, he was the standout batsman and many expected him to kick on to greater heights thereafter. That simply hasn’t happened. Needless to say, he needs runs in Hyderabad too, otherwise, he will return to Australia after four years with a selection cloud over his head.
Playing in Hyderabad – conditions that will be completely different to Australia – won’t allow much room for changing things around in this second Test. Leaving out any of the three spinners isn’t possible. At the same time, Umesh Yadav cannot be left out after sitting most of 2018 on the bench. Maybe, just maybe, there is a case for Mohammed Shami to be rested so that the team management can have a look at Mohammed Siraj.
Away from that, there is very little room for manoeuvre ahead of this second Test, given the series is still alive. It is a weird thing to say given how much this team management loves to chop and change. Ironically, and unintelligently, that aspect is only reserved for overseas tours, wherein consistency is of a premium.