“Yes, we are definitely looking at him [as an opener], and we want to give him an opportunity.”
With these words, the Indian men’s cricket team chief selector MSK Prasad gave a fresh lease of life to Rohit Sharma’s Test career.
Sharma’s ostensible promotion in the red-ball ranks – at the expense of KL Rahul, who found the door shutting on him after two years of mediocre returns – along with a maiden call-up in the longest form to Shubman Gill were the headline statements as Prasad announced the 15-man Indian squad that will take on South Africa in a three-Test series at home starting on 2 October.
Umesh Yadav joined Rahul as the only exclusions from the 16-strong contingent that had toured the West Indies for their first assignment as part of the new World Test Championship cycle – one that saw Virat Kohli become India’s most successful Test captain, with a 2-0 scoreline surging his win tally to 28.
Hardik Pandya continued to be kept away from the Test setup, with the selectors not wanting to risk the all-rounder before he returns to full fitness.
The key takeaways from the squad announcement in New Delhi on Thursday.
Can Rohit be a Test hit? Last chance saloon for the ‘Hitman’
There is a case to liken Rohit Sharma’s international career with Bruce Wayne/Batman. Apologies to any offended DC fans, but hear this out please.
The prodigal child, who learns the ropes in the shadows of the legends, hoping to become one himself, not afraid to flaunt his gifts, whilst simultaneously being ready to take on the dirty job(s), finding himself constantly in the line of fire (from antagonists and critics alike), unmatched in his ability to change the game, yet questioned over his temperament for the long haul.
No, seriously. Let’s jog through the Hitman chronicles.
He made his India debut weeks after turning 20, and within his first eight months in international cricket, he had been part of title-winning teams at both the 2007 World T20 and the 2008 CB Series in Australia. By early 2010, he had made the periphery of the Test lineup, but a maiden Test cap would be lost to a freak ankle injury – sustained playing football. It took another three-and-a-half years for that debut to arrive, and when it did, he slammed centuries in both Tests of his maiden series – one where the cricket world bid goodbye to Sachin Tendulkar. In the same year, 2013, his limited overs career was born again, as a push up to the top of the order turned his fortunes around. Over the past six years, he’s made himself an ODI and T20 beast – but only managed 27 Test appearances.
It’s been enough to corner the otherwise headstrong Mumbaikar, not quite to submission but not too far away either, not much unlike what we saw of Mr Wayne in the opening acts of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.
“There’s limited time you have as a player and I have finished almost half of it. There’s no point in spending the remaining half thinking whether I’ll be picked or not. I am going forward with the theory of ‘whatever time I have, make it count’,” Rohit had said last year when asked, not for the first time and surely not for the last, about the annoyance of his Test-match travails.
He’s been promised a three-game stint at the top of the order by the selection panel, and there’s literally no room for breathing – just look at the chasing pack.
Abhimanyu Easwaran averaged 95.66 in the Ranji Trophy last season, and has since gone on to hit a 233 against Sri Lanka ‘A’ in May and a 153 in this month’s Duleep Trophy final – a game where only one other half-century could be hit.
Easwaran’s opening partner in both those games was Priyank Panchal, who himself piled on 898 runs in nine games in the 2018/19 Ranji Trophy campaign, before hitting the visiting Lankans for 160. In August, he was Player-of-the-Match for hitting twin fifties in the second of three four-dayers India ‘A’ played in the West Indies.
Lest we forget, there is one Prithvi Shaw who’s back in November, too – and would have played all these games if he was a little more prudent with his prescriptions.
Then comes the other question, bigger in the minds of a majority: can a middle-order batsman adjust himself to the trials and tribulations of leading the line?
Rohit has answered that question affirmatively in two out of three formats of international cricket. In the third format, one only needs to go back to the start of this millennium to find another exhibit of a middle-order bat moving to the top and changing the game. Surely you haven’t forgotten how Virender Sehwag transformed Test cricket, for India and the world?
So lightning has struck twice, in this regard, for Indian cricket this century – can they be third time lucky? Can India unearth the hero they need and deserve?
Back to the drawing board for Rahul
And the road back from it could be a long-winding one; he need to only ask his Karnataka teammate Karun Nair, whom he’s spent so much time out in the middle with.
Truth be told, KL Rahul would have been cheating himself if he thought it wasn’t coming.
He’s scored nearly a hundred lesser runs in 27 innings since the start of 2018 than Steven Smith has in seven innings in the ongoing Ashes; he averages 22.23 in that time-period – with a minimum qualification of 20 innings, only 14 batsmen average lower, and of those 14, only Shai Hope can even loosely be designated as a proper ‘batsman’. (If you filter that down to a minimum of 25 innings, the only batsmen with a lower average are James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Suranga Lakmal, Dilruwan Perera and Nathan Lyon.)
Precious little has gone right for the supremely talented 27-year-old over the last 18-odd months, on and off the field. He bought himself time with a 149 in the final innings of an otherwise horrendous English summer in 2018 – that remains his only century, and one of just two knocks above 50 since the beginning of last year – but went on to thoroughly underwhelm during the victorious tour of Australia, totaling 57 runs in five innings.
One hoped that limited overs momentum from a run-laden IPL and World Cup – 593 and 361 runs, respectively – would spill over to the longest format, but even the tour of West Indies only brought with it 101 runs from four innings.
He now finds himself in the same rocking boat as his opening partners from his initial years in the Team India setup – Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan. State-mate and childhood best-bud Mayank Agarwal has gone ahead in the pecking order, Shaw is bound to be back soon, Easwaran and Panchal are knocking on the doors.
Rahul shared three century partnerships with Rohit during the World Cup after stepping in at the top of the order following Dhawan’s injury; any success for Rohit as he takes over Rahul’s spot in the Test lineup, and the exile could become a rather long one.
The arrival of Gill – is it, really?
So Shubman Gill has finally made it to the Indian Test team. The country’s collective cricketing consciousness is elevated, and why not? – When a potentially generational talent comes along, everyone is together in willing him on to the next level.
He only just touched the age of 20, but Gill already boasts a mighty impressive CV – Player of the Tournament at a title-winning Under-19 World Cup, two ODIs under the belt, and a jaw-dropping first-class average of 72.15.
Chief selector Prasad categorized the Punjab-hailing youngster as a dual back-up for both top- and middle-order positions, and Gill has presented enough of a case in the very recent past for either role.
In his last middle-order appearance for India ‘A’, the prodigious right-hander smashed a second innings double century (off only 248 balls at that) in West Indies. In his last essay as an opener for India ‘A’ – just this week, against the touring South Africans – he hit 90, one of only two half-centuries in the entire game.
But as giddy as the heart feels, is Gill really going to get a real look-in over these three Tests?
Rohit has pretty much been assured a three-Test audition, which means something would have to go terribly wrong with Agarwal for an opening spot to present itself. Numbers three to five have somewhat irremovable oocupants in Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, and Hanuma Vihari, too, has made the number six spot his own, at least for the near future, on the back of his performances in West Indies.
On top of it, the World Championship points structure deems every fixture vital – which means, even in a hypothetical scenario where India lead 2-0 going into the final game, it won’t necessarily be looked at as a time to experiment.
All of that put together pretty much means that the only conceivable way for Gill to actually find himself donning the India Test cap would be if there were to be a batting injury.
Let this not be read incorrectly – it is, by no means, a small feat for a young gun to break into the Test setup of the world’s number one ranked team, and just the experience of sharing the dressing room with the Kohlis and Rahanes and Pujaras will mean Gill will come out of this series a more learned figure than he is as of now.
But India cap number 296 might be a little further down the road.
Hardik Pandya: Cotton-wrapped, or surplus to home requirements?
The most truthful answer to that question, by the looks of it, would be a mix of both.
It has now been over a year since Hardik Pandya last featured in a Test match, and the predominant reason behind that is his now-long-running melee of physical troubles.
A back injury sustained at the Asia Cup in September 2018 had proved to be the death knell on his hopes of being part of the team Down Under, and since his recovery was managed so as to ensure a smooth passage through to the end of the World Cup, it was only clinically apt to not stress his back immediately afterwards, which is why he was rested from all formats for the tour of America and West Indies.
Looking at the bigger picture, one of the longer-term goals for the Indian men’s setup at the moment is their crack at the T20 World Cup in Australia next year – and that is a format where Pandya’s presence can potentially make or break the team’s fortunes.
So it would make sense for India to carefully manage the soon-to-be 26-year-old’s workload.
But here’s a curveball for you: only one of Hardik Pandya’s 11 Tests, played over the last two years, have come at home – and that was against Afghanistan.
Do India realistically have room for a fast-bowling all-rounder at number seven in Tests at home? The answer, one would have thought prior to Thursday, wouldn’t be a very straight-forward one. But it sure seemed like MSK Prasad (and his team) had clearer ideas.
“Where will we play him? Where is the slot? I don’t think in Indian conditions he will be a good choice.”
It sounds like a slightly damning indictment, and although it isn’t, you can see the line of thought. At home, with even the slightest of assistance to spin, India have been comfortable enough going in with two spinners and two pacers. That idea only gets more cemented with the tracks getting any trickier, because the rule of thumb is that you wouldn’t struggle getting 20 wickets on a dust-bowl, but you sure need every run you can muster from your batsmen.
Even in the scenario that they want to field all three spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav, which we saw when West Indies visited India last year – the batting prowess of Ashwin and Jadeja deems them fit enough to occupy numbers seven and eight.
So, ostensibly, there isn’t a rather vacant spot for Pandya when it comes to the Indian Test machinery playing on home soil. It’s not to say it will remain that way, but for the time being, this singular stone takes care of three birds – the present team balance, workload management, and an eye on T20 World Cup in 2020.