A lot has been made of Virat Kohli’s behaviour in the Perth Test which Australia won by 146 runs to level the series 1-1 while very little has been said of Kohli’s team selection in the match which weakened India’s position as they aimed to double their lead after winning at Adelaide.
Kohli may be the “worst behaved player” in the world but his so-called arrogance did not cost India the match. What transpired between Aussie skipper Tim Paine and Kohli at Perth, stayed on the pitch, there was hardly any ‘crossing the line’ stuff. The Indian captain has been guilty of far bigger crimes in the past. On the other hand, him tinkering with the balance of his side proved costly in the second Test.
Yes, he was forced to go into the battle without Rohit Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin due to injuries but make no mistake, he decided to play four pacers instead of three seamers and a single spinner as he misread the pitch and the conditions. Some would say, he got carried away with the green wicket on offer.
“When we looked at the pitch, we didn’t think about that [Ravindra Jadeja] option. We never thought we wanted to consider a spinner. We thought four quicks would be enough,” was Kohli’s defence after the loss on a pitch where offie Nathan Lyon took eight wickets and earned the player of the match award.
Perth also wasn’t the first time Kohli erred with his team selection. After Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s heroic performance in Cape Town against South Africa earlier this year, where India lost by 72 runs, the pacer was dropped for the next Test at Centurion for Ishant Sharma as the visitors succumbed to a 135-run loss and series defeat. Bhuvneshwar came back in Johannesburg and contributed heavily with both bat and ball as India registered a famous win.
At Lord’s during the England series, Kohli opted for two spinners while he was aware that England had named four pacers for a match that lost its first day due to rain. While Indian spinners struggled, their batsmen were bamboozled by swing and pace of English seam bowlers.
Playing four pacers at Perth also weakened India’s batting further as they once again failed to chase down a target in Tests in 2018. There was also the case of Jadeja not being fit despite being named in the 13-man squad for Perth Test but that’s a matter for a separate debate altogether.
For now, the think tank has a humongous job ahead of them to pick the best XI for the Boxing Day Test and their task has been aggravated by the poor form of openers, Prithvi Shaw’s injury, inclusions of Mayank Agarwal and Hardik Pandya and the backlash of playing four pacers at Perth.
Which opening combination to play?
Murali Vijay and KL Rahul are averaging 12.25 and 12.00 respectively in the series so far. Their meagre returns have put Indian batting under too much pressure, too early. India’s best performance in recent memory Down Under in 2003-04 was built over the foundations laid by openers Virender Sehwag and Aakash Chopra. While Chopra thwarted the Australian attack with his resolute defence, Sehwag blunted the opposition bowling force with his counter-attacking style of play.
In comparison, Vijay and Rahul have meekly surrendered to any challenge thrown at them in the series and this whole year. Logic says, India must hand incoming Agarwal his debut cap at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), however, Kohli has already suggested that he may continue to back the current opening pair.
"You just have to keep backing them (openers) and telling them that they belong and they're good enough to perform," Kohli said after Pert Test. "It's just telling them this is what we require as a team from the openers and this is the role that needs to be fulfilled. I'm sure those guys have figured out what's gone wrong in this game especially and they're very keen to correct it themselves."
A win for Australia at the MCG means India would lose the golden opportunity of winning their first Test series in Aussies’ backyard. With so much at stake, time is ripe to bring in Agarwal and avoid taking a risk. The other opening slot then becomes a toss-up between Vijay and Rahul.
On merit, there’s little to back either of two openers case but Vijay’s 67-ball stay in the second innings of Perth Test could swing the decision in his favour. One should also not be surprised if Kohli opts for Hanuma Vihari as a makeshift opener to partner Agarwal.
Even if he doesn’t open, Vihari is expected to hold on to his place in the playing eleven regardless of Rohit Sharma’s availability. The 25-year-old showed Test match temperament at Perth and could also be India’s fifth bowler.
Hardik Pandya conundrum
Hardik Pandya has been recalled to the India squad to provide the much-needed balance, to provide the bowling and batting support. However, the Baroda cricketer has hardly played any cricket since he suffered a back injury during the Asia Cup.
His only competitive outing was the match against Mumbai for his Ranji side Baroda earlier this month. Playing Pandya in such an important clash could prove risky for both the team and the player. The current Indian team management has previously committed similar mistakes and paid heavily.
An unfit Bhuvneshwar was picked in India’s XI for the third ODI against England in July, as a result, his back injury was aggravated, leading him to miss the five-match Test series. Ashwin played the Southampton Test with a niggle and came to a cropper against Moeen Ali as England registered a series win.
Indian can’t afford to repeat the mistake. Also, with Rishabh Pant still in a developing phase, the best option is to include six proper batsmen ahead of the wicket-keeper. Australian batting line-up may not boast of Steve Smith and David Warner, but their bowling remains as sharp as ever.
It’s a no-brainer that India will revert to three pacers and a spinner combination at MCG. Ashwin took part in India’s training session on Sunday, according to reports, and is expected to return to the side. In case, he’s still not up for it, Jadeja could take his place as he has been declared fit by BCCI for the third Test.
The Melbourne pitch is not expected to be as pacey as Perth and it’s always good to have some variety rather than opting for a one-dimensional attack. Umesh Yadav is expected to make way for the inclusion of a tweaker and with Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami in terrific form, Bhuvneshwar might have to warm the bench a little longer.
For India and Kohli, it’s now a case of treading the fine line. After all, the Aussies have now tasted the blood. Paine and Co know the opposition are vulnerable and would be ready to pounce on any mistake committed further. In such a scenario, Kohli can’t afford any other slip up and must pick his best soldiers for the big battle.
Possible XI: Murali Vijay, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihar, Rishabh Pant, R Ashwin/Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah