Shreyas Iyer became the first Indian batsman to score a century and a fifty on debut in the first Test against New Zealand at Kanpur which ended in a nail-biting draw on Monday, 29 November, after a seesaw battle. What’s more, both his knocks came when the team was in deep waters. In the first innings, at 145 for 4, it had seemed that India had squandered the advantage of winning the toss and batting first. Iyer’s century helped take India to a healthy total. Then, in the second innings, he rescued India from a dire 51 for 5 when all seemed lost. He batted with the skill and maturity of an experienced player, eschewing the risks he would take in T20 cricket but also judiciously attacking the bowlers.
Iyer’s success would have come as no surprise to followers of the Indian Premier League (IPL). He has played many a smart hand for Delhi Capitals (DC) and even led the franchise to a final in 2020, before being replaced as captain by Rishabh Pant midway through this year’s season following an injury. Pant too had come into the limelight in the IPL as a game-changing wicketkeeper-batsman, which made him a natural successor to MS Dhoni in the Indian team.
Their DC teammate, Prithvi Shaw, preceded Iyer in scoring a century on Test debut in 2018, before losing his place in the side following an injury hiatus. His replacement was the stylish young opener of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), Shubman Gill, whose 91 in the Brisbane Test in January led to a historic victory for India. A concussion suffered by Gill during practice on the England tour in August reopened the door for KL Rahul who did so well that he’s now the first choice opening partner for Rohit Sharma.
What this shows is that India’s selectors are spoilt for choice when it comes to filling any position in the team, whether it is white ball or red ball cricket. The IPL tests players against the best in the world in contests between well-matched sides. It has become a better yardstick to measure a player’s calibre than domestic cricket where the quality of the bowling or batting often doesn’t come up to international standards.
Chennai Super Kings (CSK) opener Ruturaj Gaikwad got the orange cap for becoming the top scorer in this year’s IPL, suggesting that CSK captain Dhoni is a better judge of new talent than most selectors. KKR’s coach, former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, thrust Venkatesh Iyer into the opening slot, where his mix of intelligent and fearless batting was a revelation. Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav have established their credentials. Now, with the IPL expanding to 10 franchises, players will get more opportunities to challenge incumbents for places in the Indian team.
There’s an archaic notion that T20 performances shouldn’t count in judging a player’s form for Test cricket. But in fact most players do equally well in all forms of cricket, learning to adjust to the formats as they go along. It’s only typecasting that lets them down.
The world’s best off-spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, was kept out of India’s limited overs teams for five years, before coming back by dint of his IPL exploits. Even the masterful Rohit Sharma, who made 177 on his Test debut in 2013, could only get a regular place in the Test team after becoming a specialist opener.The opening slots are the ones new entrants mostly vie for because they’re the hardest to hold down for incumbents. Batting is easier in the middle order and a fifty or a century will keep extending the tenure of a batsman.
Ajinkya Rahane, who captained India in the first Test against New Zealand, has a batting average of 24 in the last 16 Tests from the start of 2020. Anybody occupying one of the three specialist middle order batting positions for India should be expected to maintain an average above 40 over such a long stretch. But a captain’s knock of 112 in the Melbourne Test to turn that series around has seen him continue in the team.
Cheteshwar Pujara, occupying the vital No.3 slot, has fared little better, averaging 28 in 16 Tests, without once reaching a three figure mark. He too is riding on the equity of his heroic performances in Australia. Neither Rahane nor Pujara can get into the playing eleven of an IPL side, but our national selectors still consider them to be cornerstones of India’s Test batting. One of them will probably make way now for the returning Virat Kohli in the Mumbai Test starting on Friday. But it’s a travesty to persist with players in a prolonged slump, when there’s such an abundance of talent knocking on the door.
It was only by a series of accidental circumstances that Shreyas Iyer played in the first Test. A last-minute injury to KL Rahul meant that Shubman Gill had to open the innings instead of being tried out in the middle order as planned. Hanuma Vihari wasn’t available because the selectors sent him on an India A trip to South Africa. That’s how Iyer got in. Now he can’t be dropped, after his historic debut, which could mean the exit of one of India’s stalwarts. Rahane and Pujara have done yeoman service, but they’re holding up development of new Test talent. Ideally, both should make way, so that Suryakumar Yadav can join Iyer in the new order.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.