The Test series in the West Indies next month, kicking off India’s World Test Championship (WTC) campaign for 2023-25, is a transition point after losing back-to-back WTC finals in 2021 and 2023.
The batting failed on both occasions and sorting this out should be the first order of business for selectors. As long as India keep going back to fading stars in the hope they will shine again, it limits the scope for grooming new talent. It was strange to see the same top five batsmen in the Indian side for the 2021 and 2023 WTC finals.
It’s not as if their performances have been good enough to keep out fresh talent. Cheteshwar Pujara had a dismal run from the start of 2020, averaging below 30, but heroic knocks in Sydney and Brisbane in 2021 gave him a long rope. Finally, he was dropped after India lost a series in South Africa at the start of 2022.
But lo and behold, after a brief flirtation with Hanuma Vihari, the selectors brought Pujara back to the No.3 slot by the end of the year. He scored a ton against Bangladesh to end a four-year drought of centuries. If the selectors back-slapped one another, it didn’t last. Pujara scored a solitary fifty in the following series against tougher opponents Australia, and then failed in both innings of the WTC final this month.
The last six months have been a missed opportunity to groom a new No.3. If not Vihari, there were other options. Suryakumar Yadav has so far failed to take his T20 daredevilry into the longer formats, but shouldn’t a batsman with such brilliant strokeplay have received more than a solitary Test to prove himself?
Young guns like Yashasvi Jaiswal and Sai Sudharsan have also put up their hands in the IPL. Of course, the conditions are mostly batting-friendly in the IPL, and it’s a slam-bam format, but the two left-handers have shown sound technique. Either one of them would break up the string of five right-handers in the Indian Test specialist batting order.
Pujara gets plenty of runs in English county cricket, but what’s overlooked is that it’s in Division 2. It would serve India better in the long run to give opportunities to a younger player to adapt to Test cricket rather than extending an underperforming Pujara’s career.
It’s not that age alone should be a criterion; it’s only a number as Novak Djokovic is showing in tennis. But the older and more experienced the player, greater is the onus on him to score big.
It’s not just Pujara; former skipper Virat Kohli has scored only one Test century in the past three-and-a-half years. That was on a featherbed of a pitch this March in Ahmedabad where three others got centuries: Shubman Gill, Usman Khawaja, and Cameron Green. It was the final Test of the India-Australia series, which petered out into a tame draw.
The return of Ajinkya Rahane to No.5, following the injury to Shreyas Iyer, was understandable after his stunning comeback in the IPL. And he’s the only one from the top five who got a 50+ score for India in the WTC final. But he too has not scored a century for India after the famous one in Melbourne in December 2020.
Once a specialist batsman gets set, he’s expected to carry on and get a big score, at least occasionally. That’s not happening with India’s numbers 3, 4, and 5, which should be the backbone of the batting lineup. One only needs to look at how Australia’s No.4 and No.5, Steve Smith and Travis Head, took the WTC final away from India with 121 and 163. Meanwhile, India’s top 5 have averaged only 33 runs per innings since 2022, putting them sixth in comparison to the top 5 in other Test-playing teams. Australia’s top 5 are averaging at around 50. Injured wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant is still the only Indian in the top 10 of the ICC Test batting ranks. Australia’s 3, 4, and 5 occupy the top three positions.
Gill is the only young player in the Indian top 5. He had a wonderful series in Australia in 2020-21 after replacing Mayank Agarwal as opener. But he has been in and out of the Test side since then. Not surprisingly, his performance dropped in Tests, even as he has been in fantastic form in T20s and ODIs. It doesn’t help those relatively new to the Test side, like Gill, if they’re constantly rotated. They need a fair run to learn and adapt.
The West Indies series is a good place to start. It would be great to see young Jaiswal getting Pujara’s slot. Rahane will probably continue for a while after his performance in the WTC final, and Kohli’s superstar status protects him. So there's only one slot open for now.
Many of India’s Test victories to enter the WTC final came as a result of rearguard gumption, including a mind-blowing 89-run 9th wicket stand between Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah in England in 2021. Spinners Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Axar Patel have bailed the team out with the bat time and again, and even medium-pacer Shardul Thakur has chipped in.
Most of all, Pant’s match-winning knocks played a huge part. And crucially, India have yet to identify a suitable replacement for him. Srikar Bharat’s glovework is good, but a modern Test team is at a big disadvantage if the wicketkeeper can’t match his counterparts with the bat. Ishan Kishan or K.L. Rahul, after he returns from injury, would be a better choice, except on turners in India where Bharat may be needed. There’s clearly much for selectors to ponder before the West Indies series, at the start of the next WTC cycle for India.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.