India has an opening problem & there’s nothing bizarre about seeking solutions. But this subtlety seems lost on the team, its captain & coach.
Bizarre. That was the word that sprung to the Indian captain’s mind ahead of the third Test against England, beginning in Nottingham Saturday.
Robin Hood territory or not, the Trent Bridge cricket ground has traditionally been one that favours the home team deeply, because there is something to the geography that ensures the ball swings and seams a fair bit even when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and jolly old Friar Tuck is on the mind rather than Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad.
Ben Stokes, fresh from his legal battles, is back in the England team, while still facing the prospect of cricketing sanctions from his home board. England’s finest courts found him not guilty of “affray”, what he was charged with, and that leaves him free to bowl his shapely outswing and carve the ball through and over the infield with his scything left-hand batting.
England, 2-0 up, did not desperately need Stokes back. Sam Curran, who will miss out, and Chris Woakes, filled in more than adequately, but this is a statement from the system, telling their premier all-rounder that he is valued and welcome.
Contrast this with how Virat Kohli bristled when he was reminded, for the umpteenth time, that he will not or cannot play the same eleven in two consecutive Test matches. When asked if this sowed the seeds of insecurity in some of his players, Kohli withdrew.
“I don’t think anyone is thinking like that. These are just things that are created on the outside and people like to make a lot of nothing,” he said. “For us, the priority is to win games of cricket. We are not thinking whether someone’s career is on the line or what’s going to happen to their future.”
When prodded along the same lines, Kohli said: “We need to focus on this Test and not think about whether someone’s career is on the line. It’s quite a bizarre thought to have.”
When asked if he had reassured his mates that the chopping and changing would not have any consequences, Kohli was even more aggressive. “That’s basically your thinking. I’m definitely not thinking like that so I won’t speak to the guys assuring their careers are not on the line. Like I said, that’s quite a bizarre thought to have.”
It’s nowhere near bizarre. It’s what any normal human being would think or feel if they went to work knowing full well that even if they did their job right they may not have a seat to sit in the following morning.
Vijay, who has played 59 Tests averaging a shade under 40, should find it bizarre that his place at the top of the order has not been a certainty ever since Kohli became captain. Shikhar Dhawan, who averages 20.12 in England, 27.83 in Australia and18 in South Africa, could find it bizarre that he keeps getting picked for these overseas assignments when it’s quite clear he’s happiest at home, where he averages 44.37.
The sample size to consider K.L. Rahul, the other opener, is so small that it would be bizarre to even discuss it. Yet, with India’s selectors having picked the team for the first three Tests only, there is no reason to believe they won’t look beyond, for the final two. If one of the opening batsmen — and bizarrely no one knows yet who of the three will be thrown to the English Lions — plays an innings that keeps the guillotine at bay for now, India would have done well.
But, waiting in the wings is Prithvi Shaw, the Mumbai man-child who has been destined to play for India ever since he was taken under wing by Mumbai’s eagle-eyed scouts and coaches when the boy could barely put leg guards on without parental support. Not yet 19, Shaw has ticked all boxes, from khadoosMumbaikar to Kohli-level intent. He has seven centuries from 14 first class matches, averages nearly 57 and scores his runs at a strike rate of 76.69. Should he open the batting in the fourth Test in England? Hell, no.
West Indies come to India for two Test matches later this year and that’s when this certainty of an India player should dip his toes in the swirling waters of Test cricket.
In the meantime, there exists an opening batsman in the form of his life, who may not be a long-term prospect, who has earned his way into the Indian Test team. At 27, Mayank Agarwal might have missed the bus, in the broadest sense of the phrase, but that should not preclude him from taking the metro.
What goes against him is that he has had only one bumper season in years of trying. But, to not consider him for the final two Tests in England would be cutting the face to spite the torso. He may not be a long-term prospect, but he may serve a purpose yet, even in failure, allowing Shaw an easier introduction into the game.
This degree of subtlety may be lost on the Indian team, its captain and coach, but there is nothing bizarre about looking for solutions to the obvious problems that exist. Most of us do not qualify to be part of an elite international sporting set up, but that does not automatically mean that those who are there know best.