On day four of the Adelaide Test, Prithvi Shaw was seen jogging on the boundary line. The news sent social media into a frenzy, about a possible return for the prodigious batsman at Perth.
As confirmed on Thursday morning then, Shaw is again not playing in the second Test, and his unavailability has put the spotlight on how the Indian team management went about picking their openers for this Australian tour.
If Shaw had played at Adelaide, it is complicated to say who – out of Murali Vijay or KL Rahul – would have been left out. On the basis of form from the practice game in Sydney, Rahul had struggled more than Vijay, who got a hundred in the second innings there. It is a hazardous guess even to start with.
Imagine, if Shaw was fit for this second Test? Surely, the chopping blade would fall on Vijay, who scratched around in two innings at Adelaide, while Rahul showed some semblance of striking his way back to form in the second innings. Virat Kohli praised Rahul’s 44-run contribution on day four, and the skipper has a habit of backing his favourites.
Shaw’s recovery process has been a point of deep concern for the Indian team management, and as soon as he is fit, you can expect him to walk out to bat. Coach Ravi Shastri hinted that is a possibility at the Boxing Day Test. Where does that leave Vijay then?
Truth to be told, Vijay has had a very poor run in 2018. In 13 innings across seven Tests, he has scored only 262 runs at an average of 20.15. There is only 50-plus score – 105 against hapless Afghanistan in their maiden Test at Bengaluru. Take that out, and the picture becomes even more downbeat – 157 runs in 12 innings across six Tests at average 13.08. His highest score is 46; yes, Vijay hasn’t even scored a half-century against an opposition of note all year.
The question to ask here is if his form has been so wretched, what is he even doing in Australia in the first place?
It is a problem of the Indian team management’s own making. At the Oval, with the series already surrendered to England 3-1, they had an option of blooding in young Shaw. They didn’t. Cynics will argue that he was given a debut cap immediately afterwards in the next Test at Rajkot. But in a scenario wherein Shikhar Dhawan was already out of the reckoning, KL Rahul was given the long rope to find form and Mayank Agarwal was awaiting his chance, it was nothing but an opportunity lost. You cannot play more than two openers in any given innings, no?
As it turned out, the selectors and team management couldn’t find in themselves to drop Rahul at either Rajkot or Hyderabad, to give chances to both Shaw and Agarwal. How do you assure Rahul of a starting place in Australia, if you drop him at home for poor form under the guise of trialling fresh faces? Mind you, at this point in time, Vijay was still nowhere in the picture.
Meanwhile, straight after being dropped from England tour mid-way, Vijay did what he could do best. He opted for a County stint, the only form of First-Class cricket immediately available to him in September. For Essex then, he played three matches and banged in the runs. 56, 100, 85, 80 and 2 – 323 runs in five innings at 64.60. It was almost as if he was a different player as public focus turned away and when not facing England’s premier fast bowlers.
Typically, in cricket, this is defined as the old-man syndrome. Score runs when no one is watching, get your confidence up and do just enough to come back into the reckoning. But the truth gets hidden somewhere in the mountain of runs scored. There is no hiding from the fact that Vijay – who will turn 35 in April 2019 – is probably on his last legs as an international cricketer.
Runs in County cricket got him the ticket to Australia, mostly on account of experience there in the past. The Indian selectors would rather have an experienced 34-year-old batsman, who is battling confidence battles, as your third-choice opener than a 27-year-old who hasn’t played international cricket yet. It makes perfect cricketing sense. Logic though went flying out of the window when Shaw got injured and Vijay scored a hundred in the second practice innings at the SCG.
Those runs probably helped Vijay gather enough wherewithal to face the likes of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. In England, he had lost confidence against James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chis Woakes and Sam Curran. The differentiation isn’t much in quality of bowlers, but perhaps in conditions. Either way, any batsman – old or new, experienced or debutant – is judged in terms of returns. With scores of 11 and 18 at Adelaide, Vijay didn’t do himself any favours.
More significantly though, it was his manner of dismissals that caused more worry. Cover driving in the first innings, and poking at a wide delivery in the second, this was not the Vijay of old who would patiently wear down pacers in their first spell. Instead, this was an opener trying to stay afloat and score a few desperate runs in the hope of not having to fight his way back into the side.
Vijay put in the hard yards as the Indian team trained at the WACA on Wednesday and then again at the swanky new Optus Stadium on Thursday. He looked assured, even if to himself more than those who watched him intently. But then there is a raging, green-top waiting for him where every ball bowled could have a batsman’s name on it.
Yes, he is going to play the second Test, but everyone – including Vijay himself – knows that he can ill-afford another failure.