In the first Test against Australia, at Nagpur last week, skipper Rohit Sharma hit a masterful 120, and the next four top scorers for India were all bowlers—Axar Patel (84), Ravindra Jadeja (70), Mohammed Shami (37), and Ravichandran Ashwin (23). A combination of the Indian lower order’s batting prowess and the inept Australian response on a turning track helped secure an innings victory. But the worrying fact is that other than Sharma, all the specialist batsmen, as well as the wicket-keeper batsman failed. It’s rare when so many batsmen fail and still a team wins by an innings. But then India’s bowlers have been bailing the team out with the bat time and again over the last couple of years.
India avoided an embarrassing loss to Bangladesh in December when they were reduced to 74/7 in the final innings, chasing a victory target of only 145. Ashwin pulled the chestnuts out of the fire with 42 not out to take the team home. The second highest score was 34 by Axar Patel. In Nagpur, India were in danger of posting a score below 200, like Australia, when they were 168/5. But they amassed 400 thanks to Jadeja, Patel and Shami bolstering the captain’s knock.
Rohit Sharma returned to Test cricket after a gap of nearly a year and slotted right in with his newfound mix of solid defence and calculated risks. But the familiar woes of the other top order batsmen continued.
K.L. Rahul has been tentative in white ball cricket after a layoff following last Year’s IPL. This has carried forward into his Test batting. He failed in both Tests against Bangladesh, and made a painstaking 20 in 71 balls in Nagpur before lobbing a return catch to debutant off-spinner Todd Murphy.
His selection ahead of the in-form Shubman Gill was debatable. Gill made a century and double century in the ODI series against New Zealand; a century and 70 against Sri Lanka, and a Test century in Bangladesh in December. He was the initial architect of India’s famous Test win in Brisbane, Australia, in 2021, scoring 91 as an opener in the second innings. It’s high time for India to give fresh talent like Gill their due.
Equally debatable is the return of Cheteshwar Pujara to the Test team. He’s undoubtedly a good player of spin and did well in domestic cricket after being dropped from the Test side. He also scored a century and 90 in the first Test in Bangladesh. But he has since failed in three Test innings, including in Nagpur where he fell to a loose shot.
Despite the runs he got in Bangladesh, ending his drought of Test centuries, Pujara’s Test batting average has remained below 30 over the past three years. He has to perform consistently to justify his selection, especially given the abundance of new batting talent in the country.
Big runs are even more imperative for Virat Kohli, who has averaged just 25 over the past three years in Tests. Commentators attribute bad luck to most of his dismissals, including the one in Nagpur, but that storyline has long run its course.
Kohli has had a revival of sorts in white ball cricket in recent months. But he needs to put his best foot forward in the long form of the game, one that he had dominated between 2011-2019 with 25 centuries and six double centuries. With just six fifties and not a single century in 37 Test innings since, something’s got to change in his mindset and approach. On his form depends the solidity of the coveted No. 4 slot in India’s Test batting lineup.
The maestro can take a leaf out of his captain’s book to regain his mojo. Rohit Sharma remains nimble on his feet despite being a year-and-a-half older than Kohli. Sharma puts spinners off their rhythm and length by skipping down the wicket every now and then. One can barely remember the last time Kohli did that; he prefers to stretch forward from the crease instead. Delhi, Indore, and Ahmedabad—venues for the next three Tests—are all likely to be spin-friendly, and Australia will surely add a third specialist spinner to the playing 11 after the experience in Nagpur. Kohli will have to overcome his ego, acknowledge what’s gone wrong with his batting since 2019, and put on his dancing shoes against the spinners.
Another vulnerability that has crept into the former skipper’s game is his fielding in the slips. Standing upright, hands on knees, is far from the ideal posture for a slip fielder on slow Indian pitches where the bounce is low. Both Kohli and his Aussie counterpart, Steve Smith, dropped a number of vital catches in the first Test because of their stance in the slips. Admittedly, it can be a strain on one’s concentration and lower back to crouch low for long periods of time. But that’s what the job demands.
One solution may be to rotate the first slip position. India have a number of good close-in catchers in Rohit, Rahul, and Suryakumar Yadav to choose from as a stand-in for Kohli in the crucial first slip that Ashwin and Jadeja will rely on.
Coming back to the Indian batting, perhaps the most disappointing of all the failures was that of Suryakumar Yadav. The 32-year-old late bloomer finally got his opportunity in Tests after a stupendous year of T20 cricket. But he squandered it by lunging forward to be bowled through the gate by Nathan Lyon.
It was too early in the innings to be playing against the spin and Yadav paid the price. It’s understandable that he wants to carry on with the positive, attacking mindset that has served him so well in T20s. But Yadav has to respect Test cricket and trust his defence to succeed in the long form and derive full value from his considerable talent.
He too would do well to make his captain the model. Sharma was an underperformer in Tests for a long time, until he decided to restrain his natural stroke play and be more discerning in his shot-making. Once he decided to show bowlers that he could be patient in defence, while remaining free-flowing in attack, Sharma became twice the force he had been earlier. The only thing that remains for Sharma to iron out is his instinct to hook the short ball; Pat Cummins almost got him with one such delivery in Nagpur.
Rahul, Pujara, Kohli, and Yadav will all be under the lens in the Delhi Test starting on Friday, with Gill waiting in the wings. But, if the Indian thinktank cops some flak for leaving out Gill, it also needs to be commended for the selection of wicketkeeper-batsman Srikar Bharat.
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Rishabh Pant’s acrobatic keeping and precocious batting is a rare combination that’s hard to replace. So, after Pant’s accident, the selectors had a choice to make between the batting ability of Ishan Kishan, whose keeping is insecure, and the more reliable keeping of Bharat, whose batting is not up to the level of Pant and Kishan.
The wisdom of choosing Bharat became evident in his stumping of Marnus Labuschagne off a ball from Jadeja that spun sharply and bounced steeply. It ended a classy partnership between Labuschagne and Smith, marking a turning point in the match.
Bharat didn’t do much with the bat, but India can afford to play him at No.9 in Delhi, with Jadeja, Ashwin, and Axar batting ahead of him. The Indian spin trio will need a crouching tiger at first slip and a hidden dragon behind the stumps.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.