“They certainly did have a plan when the players for the squad were announced, but now when it comes to testing their bench strength, they seem to be thinking twice”
With the series poised at 1-1, the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) becomes a crucial encounter. If India win the Test, they will retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy, regardless of the result at Sydney, but for Australia, a win is a must to have any chance of getting their hands of the coveted trophy. Going into the series, the absence of Steven Smith and David Warner took centre stage for the Aussies. Many believed that they do not have the firepower to compete with India without the two heavyweights. After a setback in Perth, Australia proved everyone wrong by registering a comprehensive victory without the tainted duo.
After India had named teenager Prithvi Shaw for the Australia tour, one felt a sense of relief that there was some solution to the opening conundrum after KL Rahul, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan fared badly in England. Shaw after an impressive couple of Tests against the West Indies at home was all set to walk into the Indian XI at Adelaide. With that taken care of, at least for the time being, the attention shifted to the No. 6 conundrum. Many criticised the inclusion of Rohit Sharma in the Test squad and felt, Hanuma Vihari, who had scored a fifty on Test debut at The Oval, should be an automatic choice at No. 6. Rohit and Vihari have played one Test each in this series and it is really difficult to differentiate who deserves a nod at MCG at No. 6 based on their performances so far.
With Shaw having suffered an injury, which put an end to his tour even before it began, Karnataka batsman Mayank Agarwal was called-up as his replacement and has been named in India’s XI for the Boxing Day Test. Agarwal top-scored in the Ranji Trophy previous season with 1,160 runs to his name at 105.45 with 5 hundreds and 2 fifties. He has also been a regular figure in India A squad under the tutelage of Rahul Dravid and has blossomed into one of the promising talents in the country. However, with no questions over his inclusion, there are fears that Vihari may not be an ideal opening partner for him.
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Having never opened in his career, Vihari finds himself in a tough predicament. India have Parthiv Patel in their ranks, who is not just a reserve wicketkeeper but also a reserve opening batsman. However, if both Rohit and Vihari have to be accommodated in the XI, why not ask Rohit to open the innings? He has enough experience in limited-overs, has seen off the opening bowlers more than once and like in limited-overs, his Test career could have found the spark that has been missing ever since his debut series in 2013.
Chief selector MSK Prasad has confirmed that this is not a permanent solution and that Vihari will get a chance to play in the middle-order in the longer run. There is nobody better that Prasad who understands the consequences of being asked to open the innings from a middle-order position after he too was asked to do so in during the 1999-2000 tour of Australia at SCG. That eventually turned out to be Prasad’s final Test for India, after he made just 5 and 3 in his two innings. However, he is determined the same should not happen with his statesman, Vihari.
With a First-Class average of close to 59, it would be unwise for the Indian management not to pick Vihari based on just a few failures. He is a technically sound batsman and has a lot to offer Indian cricket at the international level.
India have created a lot of hurdles for themselves in the series. The player who was supposed to bat at 6 is now opening, the player who was added in the squad as a backup opener continues to warm the bench, and of course, included Ravindra Jadeja in the XII at Perth despite his injury, ahead of a fully fit Kuldeep Yadav. Not to forget, injury to Ravichandran Ashwin too adds to their woes, especially after he bowled so well in the first Test at Adelaide. In a crucial series such as this one, it was highly important to have enough depth in the squad so that they could fit in players sitting on the bench into the XI with ease. Instead, they seem to be confused as to whom to include and who to leave out.
They certainly did have a plan when the players for the squad were announced, but now when it comes to testing their bench strength, they seem to be thinking twice. India can learn a thing or two from Australia. They might be missing two of their biggest players, but when it comes to selection and batting-order, they seem to have a clear thought process. It may or may not work, but that for the time being is secondary. Australia might just have the edge going into the Boxing Day Test.