“Right from fielding Karn Sharma over Ravichandran Ashwin in Australia in 2014 or dropping Cheteshwar Pujara for an inconsistent Rohit Sharma against the Lankans in 2015, Kohli’s affair with strange team selections continues”.
Let us get straight down to business. As the Indian cricket fans were discussing and debating the absence of KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane in the first Test match again South Africa at Newlands, expecting them to mark a return to the squad at Centurion, captain Virat Kohli dropped a news at the toss on the morning of the second match that sent the cricketing fraternity into a tizzy. Yes, Rahul had made a comeback and no, Rahane had still not been unable to cement his place in the team but the news that caught all focus was the axing of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the entry of Ishant Sharma in the final eleven.
“Bhuvi, who?” you might be forced to ask. The same bowler who had troubled the mighty South African batsman on the first day of the first Test match. The same bowler who had unleashed a barrage of seam and swing bowling in the first half hour of play, making it an enticing battle. The bowler who stood exemplary of the changed fortunes in India’s fast bowling arsenal, as he scalped up 3 wickets in his first three overs. The spell that had given the team the belief that they could control the hard-hitting rivals and a spell that left one spell-bound and captivated. Over the course of the match, he picked up 6 wickets- the second most after Vernon Philander and even while batting, the bowler from Uttar Pradesh faced 127 deliveries, the most number of deliveries faced in the match after AB de Villiers.
But he was dropped. Dropped because Kohli proclaimed that the wicket, with a tinge of bounce, would be well suited for Ishant and would not assist the lateral bowling by Bhuvi. Choosing a ‘horses-for-courses’ policy never harmed but it is his strange contradictions in his team selections ever since he took over the reins that have remained the talking point in the nation.
If he dropped Bhuvi, then why not Rohit?
If indeed he was picking a side based on the conditions on offer, why then has he benched Ajinkya Rahane, India’s most successful batsman overseas? An average of 57 in Australia, 54 in New Zealand and 69.66 deserves its due credit but when it came to picking the number 5 batsman, he preferred to choose ODI form over Test credentials and technique. Rohit Sharma, who averages a paltry 25.11 in overseas conditions in Tests was given the go-ahead, even though the Indian middle order was in dire need of solidity after they were found wanting in Newlands.
Kohli himself admitted to the effectiveness of Rahane while touring abroad ahead of the second Test match, and the stubborn decision to keep going back to a batsman who might not have the skills to perform on a seaming wicket in South Africa befuddles one and all.
“Yes, Rahane has done well in South Africa. Not only in this country but rather in all conditions, away from home.”
Based on his reasoning to axe Bhuvi according to the conditions on offer and his assumed inefficiency in them, one wonders why the same does not apply in the case of Rohit as well. Also, as Kapil Dev rightly pointed out, no batsman in the India set-up had looked at ease against the bowling of Morne Morkel and Philander and thus, the move to omit the player who had played well was astonishing.
Rohit’s form is not ignored. Why was Nair’s?
The reason for Rohit’s inclusion ahead of the first match was his wonderful form coming into the Test series. Not only had he scripted a hundred against Sri Lanka in the Test series, he also had ended the year with yet another double hundred in the ODI format and a century in the T20I series that had followed the 50-over games. Rahane, on the other hand, had been totally in the woods in 2017, averaging 34.62 in 18 innings in a busy home season for the Indian team. But then again, his panache for scoring in tough alien pitches overpowers his record at home and it was almost expected that he would come of age once in South Africa.
That, however, was not to be.
This is not all. A year ago, Kohli had chosen to discard triple centurion Karun Nair for Rahane, after the latter was declared fit for the one-off match against Bangladesh. His policies revolved around the Australians’ one, wherein a player was tactfully given back his spot after he staged a return from injury. And so, even though Nair was in full flow in Chennai, the number 5 slot was duly handed back to Rahane once he was fit and raring to go. Before his injury, Rahane had just scored 63 runs in 5 innings against Joe Root’s team. Where then was Kohli’s preference for form over reputation? Why was Nair dropped for Rahane back then?
If he was so rigid in following the first choice players retaining their spot, why was Murali Vijay dropped from the first Test match in Kolkata against Sri Lanka after he had marked a comeback to the team from injury? The decision to field Vijay with either Shikhar Dhawan or Rahul was a fact most common, then why was the plot not followed similarly back then?
Once Vijay did gain his place back, the option of going for an iffy but attacking Dhawan or an on-a-seven-consecutive-fifty-spree Rahul was for the offing, and based on the conditions in South Africa, it always should have been the latter in the first Test.
Right from fielding Karn Sharma over Ravichandran Ashwin in Australia in 2014 or dropping Cheteshwar Pujara for an inconsistent Rohit Sharma against the Lankans in 2015, Kohli’s affair with strange team selections continues. Even his move to retain youngster Sarfaraz Khan in the Indian Premier League franchise Royal Challenger Bangalore, who was benched in 2016 as he was not considered “fit enough” to field in T20 games and henceforth did not play a game in 2017 has amazed many and it will not be long before Kohli’s tactical contradictions surpasses his batting prowess on the field.