SANDIPAN BANERJEE | 24 DECEMBER, 2018
A Realistic Solution to India’s Top-Order Conundrum
Perhaps Pujara needs to come forward again
First South Africa, then England and now in Australia – it is clearly evident that the lack of contribution from the top-order on foreign soil has been one of the main reasons why the Indian Test side has lost seven away matches in 2018. The new red ball more or less has had the better of the specialist openers like KL Rahul, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan throughout this year. In fact, prior to the home series against Windies, Dhawan lost his place from the Test side following his continuous failure but the other two survived.
Replacing the left-hander, young Prithvi Shaw had a terrific beginning to his career against the Caribbean side but an unfortunate injury just before the Test matches in Australia has forced the management to go with the Rahul-Vijay pair in the first two Tests. But it seems the puzzle is far from being solved as the duo has failed miserably.
3, 63, 6, 0 – these are the four opening partnerships India have had in the series so far with both openers failing to cross the even the 50-run mark across four innings.
India have never won a Test series in Australia and because of the depleted hosts camp, many consider the ongoing series, which is currently poised at 1-1 with two more matches to go, as their best opportunity. But the vulnerability in the top-order seems to be hurting their chances. And now with Shaw being ruled out of the series, they have to ask for reinforcement in the form of uncapped Mayank Agarwal.
But will the team management gamble with a newcomer in the Boxing Day Test?
Well, at this point fans might feel that Agarwal getting game at the MCG, is an absolute no-brainer but realistically the option seems far too risky.
The 27-year old Bengaluru boy may have enough exposure at the domestic and India A level, but facing the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood, Pat Cummings and the other quality Aussies bowlers in front of a paced MCG crowd, is a different ball game altogether. Also, remember he is yet to have a proper acclimatisation period. Before making your Test debut as an opener, that too in Australia, a few net sessions are surely not enough to get into the grooves. One needs proper match practice. But there won’t be any for Agarwal, if he plays.
However, being the only specialist opener in the squad barring Rahul and Vijay, if the management eventually pics the youngster, it will be a stiff ask for him.
The author believes, a practical solution to this conundrum, at least for this series, is a makeshift opening pair, with Cheteshwar Pujara being used as one of the two top-order batters.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Despite Australia bouncing back with that victory in the Perth Test, the Indians are still the favourites to win the series. So, the visitor should not let this opportunity slip by because of an unstable top-order. Virat Kohli and Co. seeks stability against the new ball and Pujara, with his much assured technique, experience and current form (averaging 55.50 in the series so far), can provide that. In fact, being a No.3 and due to the continuous failure of the opening pair, he has been coming to the crease quite early of late. Considering this, from the technical point of view Pujara doesn’t need to change much if he is asked to open in the rest of this ongoing series.
Alongside the Rajkot boy, the think-tank can provide one final opportunity to Vijay, who showed glimpses of some of his vintage days during his brief stay at the crease in the second innings at Perth. But if he fails in Melbourne, Agarwal should straightway be drafted in the XI in Sydney. At No. 3 someone like Hanuma Vihari or Ajinkya Rahane can do the job temporarily for this series.
Furthermore, if Pujara is being used as an opener, there will be a spot available in the batting order and in that vacant position team management can accommodate Hardik Pandya. The all-rounder has recently joined the team in the middle of the series after recovering from his back injury, which he sustained during the Asia Cup.
Nevertheless, Pujara has already been India’s makeshift opener in a Test match outside India. In 2015, in a series decisive fixture at the SSC ground in Colombo, he scored an unbeaten 145 in the first innings while batting at the top. The innings more or less secured a historic triumph for the visitors.
Now, perhaps, it is high time for that SOS call to Pujara to come to the rescue act once more.