Test cricket today is about ice and fire, and in Vihari-Pant, India might just have an optimal concoction for the future.
At 175-4, you wouldn’t have been wrong to wonder out aloud, just what has changed?
After all, this series has been the milestone for India’s next big transition in Test cricket. With Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane dumped into the Ranji wilderness, and India fielding a new-look middle order against Sri Lanka in Mohali, perhaps the expectations were different.
This, of course, is a cynical viewpoint. Just the one innings and you cannot argue against giving the likes of Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer getting chances in Test cricket. The balanced argument herein is that India’s batting problems weren’t at all restricted to the dumped duo – Pujara and Rahane – alone. They are more inherent than that, and nobody is talking about it, yet.
Take, for example, Rohit Sharma’s propensity to time-and-again get out to the pull shot. His love for the short ball and aiming for the boundary at square leg is arguably the best love story in cricket. Repeatedly, he has been dismissed in this fashion, and there has always been that next time when he takes on the bowler once again. It doesn’t help when you throw away starts like that. It doesn’t help at all when you are the 35th Indian Test captain and do that in the first session of your captaincy rein. Again though, who is ready for this conversation?
Or, consider Virat Kohli, for that matter. 8000 runs in his 100th Test was not the milestone everyone was waiting for, but it is the one we have to make do with. Until the second innings at least.
To the naked eye, Kohli looked set and in control as he waded through Lankan bowlers to a 76-ball 45-run knock. There was the glorious straight drive, and the effortless cover drive, both beauties you could marvel at. And then there was the little change in defensive stance he had enacted – taking guard in-line with the leg stump so his initial movement didn’t pull him across off and middle stumps, like he was doing in England. It helped him survive a close LBW call early in the innings.
More importantly, it allowed him a good start. But the questions lingered. Could a more penetrative and attack-minded bowling attack have troubled him? Could a more disciplined bowling attack have gotten the better of him? Was Kohli really in control whilst at the crease, because the manner of his dismissal suggested otherwise?
It wasn’t an unplayable delivery, but one that needed to be played at late and with full attention to the duplicitous turn. He didn’t and was bowled, bringing a premature end to countrywide anticipation.
Since his last Test hundred in November 2019, Kohli averages a paltry 28.75 in 16 Tests, including 6 half-centuries. Pujara (avg. 26.29 in 20 Tests with 8 half-centuries) and Rahane (avg. 24.09 in 19 Tests with 1 hundred and 3 half-centuries) have been dropped for near-similar statistics. Let one be clear – this doesn’t mean Pujara-Rahane shouldn’t have been dropped. In fact, they should have been dropped in England and then again in South Africa.
Even so, India’s middle order chaos wasn’t only the duo’s making and whilst pointing fingers at them, nobody bothered to check Kohli’s contribution therein. Does this lead to the conclusion that Kohli has escaped censure just because of captaincy?
It is an uncomfortable topic of discussion on most days, least of all this celebratory one. Stepping past it is far easier. He may have scored only 45 runs, but Virat Kohli deserved more than 100-odd people clapping for him as he stepped onto the field this morning. Bengaluru would have given him that, and much more.
As such, India’s missive on day one against Sri Lanka wasn’t to point fingers at its ex-captain. Instead, it was to search for a dependable middle-order combination that could hold water in both the short and long term. Despite the older ball helping Lanka make life difficult for the home batters, there were brief glimpses of what the future might hold.
It begins with Hanuma Vihari at number three. Ever since he arrived on the scene in 2018, there was an assurance about him. For years now, he has traversed up-down the line-up. But when he walked out to bat at No 3 in Mohali, there was no doubt Indian cricket was quietly moving on from Pujara.
Vihari’s style isn’t too dissimilar from Pujara’s. Enough deliveries are left away, the strike-rate never really accelerates, and there is calmness to his method of building the innings. This is how his predecessor batted on most occasions, especially at the start of his career. Two aspects stand out though – Pujara dominated spinners on his best days, using depth of the crease and thrifty footwork to go on the attack. Vihari is taller, slower, and more prone to the backfoot.
The other bit is about strike-rate. Vihari middle nearly half the deliveries he faced on day one, and his scoring rate never really faltered. In the morning session, he even scored at 50-plus, while overall he settled for 45.31. As long as he doesn’t nosedive the scoring rate like Pujara did during his latter days, Vihari will have earned the long rope he so richly deserves at this spot.
Talking about strike-rates though, Rishabh Pant never ceases to amaze.
The fact that he came out to bat at number five was telling. India was feeling the heat, with Lasith Embuldeniya already striking twice. Usually, the left-to-left attacking ploy is rarely seen in Test cricket, but the team management is making a habit of using him in this manner. Whether be in Australia, or at home against England, Pant has performed that role with aplomb, upsetting the opposition’s balance to great effect. That he was needed to do similarly against Sri Lanka was an admission on two counts. One, the visitors weren’t to be taken lightly. And two, Pant is a force of nature by himself.
When you have a mighty weapon at your disposal (and this is no reference to the war in Europe currently), might as well unleash it. Pant’s stay at the crease is a warning sign for the opposition bowlers – they can never rest easy. And it is a testament to his growth, particularly as a long-form batsman, for India now boasts of a weapon that few teams have ever possessed in cricket’s long and rich history.
Australia had such a weapon at one time – Adam Gilchrist. Pant is following well on those footsteps with his ability to change the narrative in less than a session. It is this facet that took over the first day completely by stumps. In dire need, Pant played the accumulator, first with Shreyas Iyer and then Ravindra Jadeja. Without warning though, he cut loose after reaching fifty – 46 runs came off 23 balls thereafter and Lanka’s hard work was undone.
At no point during the day had India looked like reaching 300, let alone crossing 350 in such dominant fashion. It would have made for a glorious hundred, but Pant lives and dies by the sword. The more you watch this phenomenon, the more you learn to accept it.
For, in this age, Test cricket isn’t about grit and determination alone. It is also about aggression and seizing the moment with the scruff of its neck. Test cricket today is about ice and fire, and in Vihari-Pant, India might just have an optimal concoction for the future.
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