Video Editors: Rahul Sanpui, Kunal Mehra
Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya
When India toured South Africa at the start of this year, the recognised batsmen in the squad, barring Virat Kohli, averaged 16.17 through the three-Test series.
In England a few months later, the average runs made by the recognised batsmen excluding Kohli was 24.57.
If India are to overcome their overseas woes, and claim a Test series win in Australia – a feat they are yet to achieve in 71 years of visiting the shores Down Under – the batting has to come good when the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2018/19 gets underway at Adelaide on Thursday, 6 December.
Captain Kohli, Four Years On
It was on the last trip to Australia, in 2014/15, that Virat Kohli became India's 32nd Test captain – launching a journey which would see India reclaim the position of the world's number one ranked Test side.
The Adelaide Oval, in particular, provides a bittersweet memory in the course of the Indian skipper’s career. The series opener here, four Australian summers ago, marked Kohli’s first Test as captain – and he lit up proceedings with two sparkling centuries, only for his side to crumble and fall excruciatingly short in pursuit of a 364-run target.
Much of India’s successes in the seasons since were down to the ‘five-bowler theory’, backed firmly by both captain and coach Ravi Shastri. But India’s travels so far in 2018 have shown it’s not working – a fact evidently accepted by the team management, who have decided to field seven batsmen in the opening Test with Rohit Sharma in the Indian XII.
Ghosts of South Africa & England
India's year on the road kicked off in South Africa in January, where captain Kohli enhanced his reputation with runs galore – but what about the rest of his batsmen?
A combined total of 36 innings from the rest of the recognised batsmen brought just 582 runs at an average of 16.17 – and only two scores of above 50. Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane aside, none of the eight other batsmen tried out managed to average even 20 runs per innings.
Then, came a trip to England – with a very similar script.
Kohli made runs for fun, and stamped his class as world number one – but the rest?
Nine different batting options, barring the skipper, returned less than 25 runs per innings against an English attack led by two pacers well into their thirties.
Add to this the quantum leap taken by the bowlers, possibly the best an Indian pace attack has been for many a decade.
India took all 60 wickets available in three Tests in South Africa, and 87 out of 90 in nine innings in England.
That rich vein of form, coupled with Hardik Pandya’s balance-hampering absence due to injury, makes it quite clear why the ‘five-bowler theory’ has been shelved for the time being.
How India Will Line Up at Adelaide
Prithvi Shaw’s unfortunate ankle injury in the tour game against Cricket Australia XI makes the top-five virtually pick itself.
Only two frontline opening choices remain in the squad, and those are Murali Vijay and KL Rahul.
While Vijay brings a wealth of experience – 482 runs in 4 Tests at an average of 60 the last time around in Australia – he was considered not good enough just about four months ago when he was sent home inside two Tests of the English summer.
Rahul enjoys batting against Australia – six fifties plus a hundred in just 11 innings versus the Aussies, including his maiden international hundred in just his second Test at Sydney in 2015 – but in the words of assistant coach Sanjay Bangar, he keeps finding new ways to get himself out.
Both have something to prove, especially given the knowledge that one of them is likely to sit out once 19-year-old Shaw is good to go again.
At number three comes the man who hasn't quite met the promise of being the next 'Wall'.
In away Tests against Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa since 2014, Cheteshwar Pujara averages 26 with just one hundred in 34 innings.
Middle Muddle: Kohli, And?
Next – Virat Kohli. No numbers or evidence required here, so let’s just move ahead.
At number five comes Ajinkya Rahane: the strongest suit when India were on their previous touring cycle, between 2013 and 2015, but among the weakest in the last year of travelling.
On tours to Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa between 2013 and 2015, Rahane averaged nearly 50 with nine 50+ scores in 25 innings. But in six Tests in South Africa and England this year, the Indian vice-captain has averaged just 26, with only two 50+ scores in 12 attempts.
At number six in this setup are two options – both on the 12-man shortlist for the Adelaide Test – but for multiple reasons, we see Hanuma Vihari being persisted with.
Yes, Rohit Sharma is in the squad – but Vihari was given more time in India's warm-up game, and also bowled 12 overs when India were in the field, a possible sign of things to come.
Selecting Vihari also keeps with the Kohli-Shastri school of not altering a combination without a glaring need for the same - although, not altering combinations has not been the best decision in Indian cricket off late!
Pant’s Moment of Reckoning?
For a No. 7 batsman, also donning the ‘keeping gloves, to be mentioned in the same breath as Adam Gilchrist, is about as glowing a testimony as possible. But for it to happen three Tests into your career, at the age of 21, puts a heavy load.
Rishabh Pant will do well to not dwell on anything being said on the outside, but either which way he ought to know the next month presents him with a golden opportunity.
His ‘natural game’ remains both his biggest strength and biggest weakness, but it might be more imperative for him to step up when standing behind the stumps – because Parthiv Patel (yes, still!) is lurking in the backdrop.
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