Anirudh Suresh
05 Feb 2023 | 07:51 AM

SKY’s Test call-up: a hail-mary pick or is there more to it?

We analyze ‘if’ there could tactically be one or many reasons behind India calling up Suryakumar Yadav for the Australia Tests

With Shreyas Iyer injured and out of the Nagpur Test, there’s a 50/50 chance that Rahul Dravid & co might end up making a very, very  controversial decision: playing Suryakumar Yadav at No.5.

Suryakumar’s selection in the squad has already divided opinions like no other in recent memory, with the louder of the two parties — by some distance — being those against his inclusion. 

‘If Suryakumar Yadav plays against Australia, it will mark the death of the Ranji Trophy.’

You’ve most likely seen or heard these exact words somewhere on the internet.

‘Youngsters with Test ambition should take up T20s because SKY has made the Test squad purely on the basis of his white-ball exploits’.

You’ve probably come across this too.

The first of these two statements is slight hyperbole, considering both Jaydev Unadkat and KS Bharat — both of whom have toiled hard in the Ranji — will likely, at some point, feature in the upcoming series. While it is true that Sarfaraz Khan has been hard done by, it’d be incorrect to claim that the management, over the years, have turned a blind eye to domestic performances.

However, there’s an element of truth to the second statement given Surya has played a total of five red-ball matches in the last three years. If we’re talking about merit, then Surya shouldn’t ideally have been in the picture.

Here’s the thing, though: we’re not here to take the moral high ground, nor are we keen on pushing a pro-SKY agenda.

Our aim in this article is as follows: to figure out ‘if’ there could tactically be one or many reasons behind India calling up SKY for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

What do SKY’s (recent) numbers in red-ball cricket look like?

Suryakumar might have been called-up for Tests on the basis of his white-ball numbers, but he’s far from a mug against the red-ball: overall, he averages 44.75 and has 14 first-class hundreds to his name. 

In fact, when he broke into the scene a decade ago, Suryakumar took Ranji by storm — 737 runs in first 8 matches @ 73.7 — and was spoken of as one of Mumbai’s next big things.

Unfortunately he couldn’t sustain the excellence, and he slowly transitioned into a white-ball specialist. 

Which is why in the last 5 years, he’s featured in all of 12 FC matches.

But his numbers make for an interesting read.

Since 2019, Suryakumar has accumulated 774 runs at an average of 59.54, which is actually an improvement on his numbers till 2018 (average 43.02).

His average in this period, in fact, is the eighth-best among all Ranji batters (non-plate) who’ve scored a minimum of 750 runs. 

Without question the sample size is very small, but it tells us that, despite shifting his focus to white-ball cricket, his proficiency as a red-ball batter didn’t wane. It, if anything, improved. 

Perhaps SKY’s transformation was simply him becoming a better batter; maybe it had nothing to do with him specializing in one format. 

The part that stands out, however, is (you guessed it) his strike rate. 

For the first eight years of his Ranji career, Suryakumar struck at 60.7. 

Since 2019, his SR has shot up to 91 (it was 95.7 in the 2 matches he played this season).

In short, we can conclude from the little red-ball cricket he’s played in recent years that he’s clearly upskilled as a hitter — big time. 

But that hasn’t, in any way, affected his ability to consistently post scores, considering he has, in this period, posted 11 scores of 35 or more in 14 innings.

So Surya is actually a better red-ball batter than Twitter makes us believe (who’d have thought?). 

Cool. But why  has he been picked? Is there any scenario where he’ll prove to be useful, considering that the man whose spot he took (Sarfaraz) would have (apparently) guaranteed runs and daddy tons.

Let’s get to that part now.

Could Suryakumar prove to be useful in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy if he plays?

In short, the answer is yes

Mind you, there is no guarantee that he will succeed. There’s probably no scenario in which he turns into a run-machine / run-bank at No.5.

But in the absence of Rishabh Pant, he could prove to be a potential point of difference.

How? If he’s employed to specifically target and take down Australia’s talisman, Nathan Lyon.

Lyon, we know, will be Australia’s lynchpin in the forthcoming series. He is so important to the tourists; in terms of skill and experience, he is miles ahead of all his other spin compatriots. 

A lot, thus, rests on Lyon’s shoulders. Australia need him to not only take wickets but also control the game, for it will a) enable the seamers to operate at full throttle in short bursts and b) give more leeway to the second (more inexperienced) spinner.

Suryakumar — or any Indian batter, for that matter — taking down Lyon will therefore fully unsettle Australia’s plans. It will throw a huge spanner in their works.

The obvious question here is if Suryakumar is equipped to do the same. If he has it in him to neutralize Lyon like, say, a Rishabh Pant does.

Frankly, we do not know because SKY has neither faced nor taken apart any elite spinner at the Test level.

What we do know from his T20 exploits in the past 3 years, however, is that his range against spin is as good as any batter in the world. 

Finger-spin in Test cricket belongs to a different ball-park compared to finger-spin in the shortest format, yes. 

But in 34 T20s since 2020, SKY’s average of 66 and SR of 141.2 against off-spin suggests that he knows how to take down and target the offies. 

His overall record against spin in T20s in this period — 1103 runs @ 44 and 144 — and the general eye test, too, tells us that Suryakumar is a great player of spin.

But will this translate into Test cricket success on rank turners? We do not know.

We’re just assuming that this could have been one of the reasons for SKY’s inclusion in the Test squad. 

Unfortunately, there is no average vs bowler type  record available for the Ranji Trophy. 

But in Mumbai’s Ranji encounter against Saurashtra earlier this season, Suryakumar was Mumbai’s standout batter in a game which saw the Saurashtra spinners account for 18 of the 20 wickets to fall.

He scored 95 (107) and 38 (46) in a game that saw no Mumbai batter, barring him, pass 25 in each innings. And yes, the encounter also featured the likes of Sarfaraz, Shaw, Jaiswal and Rahane.

It means nothing significant but it tells us, again, that there’s certainly something  about SKY the red-ball batter. 

This something  is what has, in all likelihood, played a big part in the management drafting him into the squad.

In Pant’s absence, the management surely would also have taken Suryakumar’s style of play into account.

As things stand, among the guaranteed starters, India have no counter-punchers who have the ability to make Australia worry that the game could be taken away from them in a session. It’s a huge bonus for the Aussies, who know that they can always find ways to keep the run rate in check even if they’re not picking up wickets.

The presence of Suryakumar changes the dynamic a bit. 

For the visitors will know that Suryakumar will turn the tide and flip the momentum if he bats for a session or two. They’ll know that he’ll always be looking for the attacking option first, and they’ll know they cannot afford to simply go through the motions. 

The question is if Surya has it in him to dominate the likes of Cummins and Lyon in an arena unfamiliar to him, where the field is tilted in favor of the bowlers.

Nobody knows the answer. Yet.

But given it’s a gamble that could potentially win India the series if it clicks, the management may have identified it as a risk worth taking.

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