The last few days have been pretty intense. From one person taking a dig on another to having dressing room conversations blowing out of proportions to a captain publicly taking a stance against the board - a lot has happened recently. It’s fair to say that no one has emerged as the winners in this show of one-upmanship.
But as the team prepare for a South Africa tour after almost four years, it is easy to assume that those tailor-made P3 talks will take a backseat and cricket will take over. The Rahul Dravid-Virat Kohli management have a lot to ponder on and chalk out the combination ahead of time.
Let’s dive in.
Would Agarwal be able to sustain the pressure?
India doesn’t have either of Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill for the South Africa series - the two openers who opened in the World Test Championship final earlier this year. Their absence deprived India of two options but they will now have to rely big-time on KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal. They do have an option of Priyank Panchal but his inclusion will only depend on last-minute fitness issues.
Rahul did well to find a second wind to his career in the England series, scoring 315 runs at 39.37 that included a century and a 50. Those two innings played a huge role in India setting up a historic sojourn before the last Test was postponed for 2022. Virat Kohli can surely bank on Rahul to deliver but there is a question mark on Mayank Agarwal, especially overseas, despite the Karnataka batter scoring a 100 and 50 in Mumbai against the Kiwis earlier this month.
In nine overseas Tests, Agarwal has averaged 26.76 with four fifties in 17 innings. That is not inspiring for a player who has an incredible record at home. With South Africa missing Anrich Nortje, there is a shortage of pace in that department but Kagiso Rabada and Duanne Olivier are too good in those conditions to trouble the Indian. India are sure to feel the absence of Rohit Sharma in those conditions.
The Pujara-Kohli-Rahane trilemma
From the way the change in vice-captaincy happened, it is pretty clear that India have decided to move on from Ajinkya Rahane for the near future. Sure enough, he is in the squad but that decision was perhaps an indication of the fact that India have lost faith in his batting abilities, with the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav slowly making strides.
Virat Kohli is Virat Kohli. Pujara brings in a sense of confidence by blunting out tough spells, which is again very important this time with Rohit’s absence. In such a situation, India would expect some sort of dynamism from their No.5 which Rahane, with all due respect, seemed incapable of doing anymore.
To put it out bluntly, it is a series between two capable bowling units and a few laggards with the bat. The difference, however, will be who holds on for a longer period of time, and hence, the inputs of the middle-order will be crucial in that direction. If Iyer or Hanuma Vihari, whoever gets the nod ahead of Rahane, manages to get tough runs will be the real differentiator between India winning their first Test series in South Africa or continuing their “so near yet so far” narrative. Furthermore, the decision on who bats at five and six will also depend on the team combination. Whether India want to go in with five blowing options or just the four. More on that later.
Finally game time for Ashwin?
After yet another Player of the Series performance in the New Zealand series, when Ashwin was asked about his ambitions for the South Africa series, he cheekily said, “he would want some game-time at least”. It was the reflection of how far he had gone down in the pecking order in overseas Tests, for no real fault of his own and partly due to the emergence of Ravindra Jadeja as a batter and Shardul Thakur as an all-rounder.
Now that Jadeja has been ruled out, India look sure to go back to Ashwin as their lone spinner in South Africa where he averages the worst in his career - 46.14. However, he has an impeccable record against the Saffers, taking a wicket for every 19.75 runs and at 47.6 balls per wicket. In the two Tests he played in 2018 against the Proteas, he picked up a two-fer in Cape Town to back that up with a four-fer in Centurion and those two performances was a big help to the side. If India want to go with six batters plus Pant combination, then Ashwin would trump Axar Patel for that role.
However, just like England, Ashwin's inclusion will be governed by the combination India feel more comfortable with. In England, there was a propensity to play four pacers and Jadeja, with Shardul Thakur being the fourth pacer. If India make a direct swap between Ashwin and Jadeja, number seven would seem one spot too high for Ashwin (or even Shardul). But what might work in Ashwin's favour if India are adamant about this option is Jayant Yadav's lack of reputation with the bat at least at this level. In any case, if India opt for seven proper batters to counter the challenging conditions in South Africa, Ashwin's case would be stronger being the wicket-taking options with three other pacers. In that case, two of Rahane, Iyer, and Vihari would get the nod with the first two being the most likely contenders.
The pace department
In 2018, India used Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Jasprit Bumrah in a rotating manner but they played three of them in any given game. Hardik Pandya was still bowling, so it eased a bit of a problem in the pace bowling department. If Shardul Thakur is considered as a like-for-like replacement for Hardik, then India would seemingly look like having a longish tail.
Coming to first-choice options, Shami, Bumrah, and Siraj seem the likely starters for the first Test. Ishant Sharma was not the same bowler which tormented the Saffers and the Aussies and the Englishmen three years ago.
Further, the team from the Rainbow nation have a fragile batting line-up and the problem is set to be escalated with Quinton de Kock missing two Tests as his wife is expecting the birth of their first child. Others in the line-up, including Rassie Van der Duessen and Aiden Markram, are capable batters but their returns are middling since the days of initial promise. India may want to go all-out with their bowling and ensure a fundamental standard is met to be on the attacking side of things.