“This [horses for courses approach] is something that we made pretty clear when we lost the game in Galle [against Sri Lanka in 2015]. After that we had a pretty clear chat that we are going to play people that we think are suitable for different venues. Even the batting order changes; I have gone up and down the order as well and other batsmen are keen to do it as well. I think it sends the message across, that the eventual motive is for the team to win.”
These were Virat Kohli’s words last year during the series against England. At the time, Kohli had captained India in 20 Tests and not once had laid bare the same XI players in Tests. The horses for courses approach, he said, was a “conscious” decision by India to field the right men on the right track.
A year later, in Sri Lanka, when Lokesh Rahul returned from injury with Shikhar Dhawan and Abhinav Mukund the incumbent openers, Kohli had said, “KL has been our established opener. So, I think one of the openers will have to make way for KL because what, he has done in the past two years, has been very solid and he deserves to come back and start fresh in Test cricket again. We have a team meeting after the practice and we can clarify more after the meeting but according to me, KL is definitely coming back in the top order.”
That seems like a righteous, well thought out, fair (take a note, FAIR) decision.
Yet all this was thrown to the winds when Murali Vijay returned after a four-month hiatus from injury for the Sri Lankan series at home.
On a green mamba, laid out in supposed practise for the South African tour later this season, India chose KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan over the established, consistent, perfect ‘Test opener’, Murali Vijay. India dropped Vijay.
The sheer outrageousness of this decision cannot be stressed enough. There could be a hundred articles written on this in every nook and corner of the World at the moment, but it needs to be written again.. and again..until Vijay gets back in for Dhawan.
Sure enough, Suranga Lakmal, who had bowled his heart out in South Africa a few months ago, wrecked havoc. By the end of 71 balls plausible in the day, India had made 17 runs, none of them off Lakmal, and conceded three wickets, all of them to Lakmal.
The very first ball was an absolute screamer, brute of a delivery that angled in and then shaped away for Rahul to edge behind. Dhawan, flamboyant, aggressive and immune to the technicalities of the pitch, went for an expansive drive few balls later only to inside edge one onto his stumps.
— Rahul (@clickator7) November 16, 2017
Vijay may not have been India’s best in the home series against Australia, although he did score two hundreds against England. Shikhar Dhawan, on the other hand, greeted his unexpected opportunity with two centuries. KL Rahul, meanwhile, is just 25 and clearly is the future in terms of opening the batting in Tests.
So what forced India to do the unthinkable?
Maybe, Vijay didn’t have a resounding knock after returning from injury. He did.
The ‘Monk’ as he is fondly called, made 140 in 273 balls for Tamil Nadu against Odisha a few days before the Kolkata Test after he was made a last minute inclusion in the Tamil Nadu Ranji team for the game at the insistence of the Indian management.
Maybe, Vijay isn’t suited to greener, seaming tracks. He is.
At Durban in 2013, Vijay combined with Cheteshwar Pujara for a 157 run association which fetched India a 300+ total. Vijay had 97 of those to his name.
Did we miss Murali Vijay? Our best batsman in seaming & swinging conditions in 2014.
— Sam Roy (@SamRoy84) November 16, 2017
In 2014, in England when James Anderson and Stuart Broad teased and tricked Virat Kohli’s off-stump woes, Vijay made 402 runs in five Tests, battling more than seven and a half hours for his 146 in the opening Test match at Trent Bridge.
At Lord’s, in the second innings, Vijay batted in a bubble brushing off anything and everything England threw at him. The 95 he made was less valuable than the 247 balls and several hours he conquered in that innings.
At the Gabba a few months later, Vijay made a cracking 144, becoming just the second Indian to hit a hundred on the ground after Sourav Ganguly.
Compare this to Dhawan’s record outside the sub-continent and it makes you cringe. The Gabbar averages 27.83, 20.33 and 19.00 in Australia, England and South Africa respectively and was found out against the short ball as well as the moving ball.
As the chart shows, the only place Dhawan averages above Vijay is Asia. Everywhere else there is a considerable discrepancy in averages. If anyone is a flat-track bully here, it is Dhawan. Period.
Forget keeping the South African series in mind, if the management had a mere glance at the Eden pitch, Vijay would have been padding up the next moment.
The sheer absurdity of the decision is difficult to sink in considering how good Vijay has been in the past few years for India. Along with Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, he has been a lynchpin in the Indian batting line-up in overseas Tests.
One can only assume that Dhawan was picked in line with Virat Kohli – Ravi Shastri’s preference for aggression and expression. But those qualities don’t win you Test matches. Being staid does. Temperament does. Patience does.
In Tests, doggedness over flamboyance; defence over driving; Vijay over Dhawan. That’s just how it should be.