After knocking up 320 runs, which accounted for an impressive 80 per innings, in the 55th edition of the first class cricket tournament Duleep Trophy played in August-September, and hours after the Indian team for the home Test series against New Zealand was announced by the selection committee headed by Sandeep Patil on September 12, Gautam Gambhir broadcast his resolve in a midnight “I-must-fight” tweet.
Gambhir’s domestic performance has been outstanding, but Patil and his team, as well as captain Virat Kohli and coach Anil Kumble, were happy to stick with Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, with a red-hot KL Rahul looking ready to do just about anything, from opening the innings to batting at any slot the team would want him to and keeping wicket, making both Vijay and Dhawan feeling the need to pull their socks up if they wanted to stay in the team.
Once the “disappointed but not defeated” sort of sympathy being whipped up by Gambhir gives way to logic that the Indian team would now require players who could fit into the Kohli scheme of things, the question that pops up is not charming. And that is: could Vijay and Dhawan, or Rahul teaming up with either of the two by default, as it happened in the second Test against the West Indies, or by design, be the characters Kohli would need to make things happen away from home?
Vijay is past 32 and Dhawan is 31. Numerically speaking, a few more years of cricket is left in them, but Dhawan’s technical issues to deal with swinging, bouncing balls, and Vijay’s crisis of confidence after finding himself out of the playing eleven in the third Test against the WI even when he had recovered from a thumb injury suffered in the first Test, might create a situation that could upset Kohli’s ambitious, aggressive foreign policy.
The best opening combination for India was when Virender Sehwag and Gambhir were at the top of their career. They were an awesome item for a pretty long time, for seven years or so, but the impact they created in 2004 and carried on for an excitingly long period of time to eventually emerge as the most successful openers for India with 4,412 runs in 50 Test matches averaging 52.52 had been on the wane since 2011.
Sehwag was the first to get the stick. He was dropped midway through the home series against Australia in 2013. Gambhir was dumped after the disastrous 2014 tour of England.
Inconsistency has been the name of the game put up by openers since then.
How Vijay and Dhawan don’t work the magic as a team can be guessed from their averages in away series. Vijay had impressive figures of 60 in Australia, 40 in England, 37 in South Afrcia and 12 in New Zealand, whereas Dhawan averaged 27 in Australia, 20 in England, 19 in South Africa and 53 in New Zealand. The lone impressive away show from Dhawan came against New Zealand, and that was the only away series Vijay failed, which means the pair rarely clicked as a team on tours outside Asia.
One thing Kohli needs to try out his aggressive agenda is a good platform built, owned, operated and gracefully handed over to the guys coming in at No. 3, 4 and 5. Something Dhawan and Vijay often failed to do as a pair outside Asia. If and when the opening pair put up a bold, beautiful figure on the scoreboard, Kohli could come in where he wants to, at No. 3 or 4, and twist or tweak the plot. Rohit Sharma could then stride out into the middle at No. 5 or 6 and change the game, or finish it, in a session or much less.
Vijay and Dhawan might do well in the current home season, individually or in combination, but they may not be the right men for the team for a long run. Rahul is. The new selection committee need to find and groom a youngster to pair with Rahul.
Unfortunately, it seems Rahul is getting the wrong messages. He thinks the gloves challenges may be thrown at him at any moment, so he’s trying to fit himself into the role. That’s unnecessary. Wriddhiman Saha is doing all right, and if he is found wanting, the selectors are only spoiled for choice to find a new man to keep wicket.
What the team lacked in the last three-four years has been reliable, consistent openers. When that happens, when Kohli and Anil Kumble could sort that part of the plot out and spot and groom a young man to walk out into the middle with Rahul to open the innings, other things would stand a far better chance of falling into place. At the moment, fortunately or otherwise, there’s very little to select from, and that’s both a challenge and an opportunity for Indian think-tank.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in India. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman