Don’t change a winning combination – so goes received wisdom.
India’s victory over South Africa in the first Test – no Asian side had breached Fortress Centurion till then – was a testament to how far Virat Kohli’s team has come in terms of winning away from home. The achievement is rightly being feted by fans and the general cricketing community.
In hindsight, the game was set up, and pretty much decided, by the 117-run opening stand between KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal. It meant that even though India collapsed on the third morning, their first innings total was still too big for a fragile Proteas batting line-up against a deadly bowling attack.
Nos. 3, 4 and 5 are the engine room of any batting line-up, and it has been underperforming for India for a considerable period now. Messrs Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane have not been pulling their weight on the scoreboard. Scores of 0 and 16 (Pujara), 35 and 18 (Kohli) and 48 and 20 (Rahane) will not stop those pointing fingers at the trio. If this Test side is considered ‘Kohli’s team’, one has to believe that his contribution and significance is not limited to the runs he scores.
Scenes from Centurion 👌https://t.co/Z3MPyesSeZ goes behind the scenes post #TeamIndia‘s historic win at SuperSport Park 🏟️🙌
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 30, 2021
That puts Pujara and Rahane, both of whom were put on notice when the squad for the South African tour was named, under the scanner.
But should new head coach Rahul Dravid go for continuity or wield the axe ahead of the second Test in Johannesburg starting on Monday?
Options at hand
The two other middle-order batsmen in the squad are Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari. Iyer made a stellar start to his Test career against World Test champions New Zealand, but is untested away from home. Vihari is considered surplus to requirements for home Tests when only five specialist batsmen are included in the XI. But with Kohli insisting on the same strategy in South Africa, Vihari was left out in Centurion as well. His last appearance in India whites was a year ago in Sydney, where his memorable rearguard, in partnership with Ravichandran Ashwin and on one good leg, secured a draw against all odds.
Test cricket 🇮🇳❤️ pic.twitter.com/O3Sr3YvCKO
— Shreyas Iyer (@ShreyasIyer15) November 29, 2021
Another fine knock by @ShreyasIyer15 as he brings up his half-century off 109 deliveries.
— BCCI (@BCCI) November 28, 2021
He has been in the Rainbow Nation for much longer than the rest of the Test squad, as part of the A squad and has some runs behind him. But with the team management unlikely to ditch the five-bowler approach, will Vihari or Iyer necessarily make the final XI stronger?
— Hanuma vihari (@Hanumavihari) December 4, 2021
There is a valid argument that experience, that too in alien conditions, is not a commodity that can be bought off the shelf. Pujara and Rahane can provide vital suggestions and inputs to Kohli on the field as they have encountered most situations in games before, something which Vihari and Iyer may be hesitant or unable to do.
Rahane has led India in Tests, and with success as well, so his advice would carry some weight. This is Pujara’s fourth Test tour of South Africa, and he was seen during the first Test going to Kohli with his opinion on what needed to be done on the field.
Eye to the future
Both Pujara and Rahane have been told they need significant scores in South Africa to retain their spots. It’s unlikely that 30s and 40s would be deemed enough in this regard. Veteran pacer Ishant Sharma is also believed to be on his last tour for India, but while Pujara and Rahane got opportunities at Centurion, sentiment didn’t come in the way of keeping Ishant out of the playing XI. Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj have formed a potent trio and with Umesh Yadav waiting in the wings, chances of Ishant getting a look-in seem remote at the moment.
In sport, as in life and business, staying stationary is akin to going backwards. One has to constantly search for ways for improvement to avoid being overtaken by the competition. One has to decide the strongest possible team that India can field, subject to conditions and opposition. If the all-conquering Australian team under Steve Waugh had stuck to a winning combination, Adam Gilchrist – who turned out to be a game-changer in the role of wicketkeeper-batsmen in Tests – wouldn’t have got a chance in Ian Healy’s place.
A big victory for #TeamIndia in the 1st Test.
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 30, 2021
There will come a time when the Indian selectors and team management need to take a call on whether Pujara and Rahane deserve a place in the strongest XI, or whether it’s time they make way for younger contenders. Both are 33 years old and have already been given a long rope. The openers putting on a century stand will not happen every time, and even though India has enviable bowling strength – for both home and away conditions – it’s runs on the board that set up most Test victories. The engine room can’t afford to stutter for long.
But it will be a bold call to jettison either – or both – veterans in the middle of a high-profile away series as it would likely spell an end to their Test careers. Normally, newcomers are eased into the side at home so that familiarity with conditions eases them into their roles. Bringing in either Iyer or Vihari for Pujara or Rahane would be frowned upon if the move backfires. Maybe, if India wins the second Test to seal its first series victory in South Africa and either/both of the two seniors fail to get a substantial score, the selectors and team management can afford to make a tough decision, even though there are no dead rubbers now in the World Test Championship.
A series win in South Africa will be a big deal, even though the hosts have fielded much stronger sides in the past. A team in transition, with a brittle batting order – which will now miss the retired Quinton de Kock as well – was always second-best to India, man to man. It may afford India the chance to implement a coherent succession plan.
BREAKING: #Proteas wicket-keeper batsman, Quinton de Kock has announced his retirement from Test cricket with immediate effect, citing his intentions to spend more time with his growing family.
— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) December 30, 2021
One is defined by the choices one makes. The tenure of the present selection committee and the team management will be judged by the calls regarding the futures of key senior players. After the South Africa tour, only the one-off rescheduled Test in England will remain as a relatively tough overseas assignment in the current World Test Championship cycle. Maybe, it’s the right time for a transition.
These are some of the factors Kohli, Dravid, and the selectors will have to consider as they chart the medium-term roadmap for Team India. There will be pros and cons irrespective of the decisions they make. The panel has already taken a bold call by taking away the ODI captaincy from Kohli. Is another big move on the way?