It will be a while before the dust settles. Right now this seems like a crisis.
For a proud cricket nation like India ‘the summer of 36’, as it is infamously christened now, is bound to look like an embarrassment. Especially when there were no demons in the wicket. It was not a spicy greentop that we witness at times in England or New Zealand. This was nowhere near the worst batting line-up that has embarked upon an overseas tour in India’s history either. It was just a nightmare scenario of being caught at the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is tough to overcome a defeat like this. What makes it worse is that the loss came in the first game of the tour and at perhaps India’s most preferred venue. It is not a surprise that ex-Australian players have come out giving India no chance of coming back in this series.
The diagnosis is expected. Since it has begun, blaming T20s has always been the go-to reaction for Test debacles. A former Indian batsman while analyzing the loss for the broadcaster in India was quick with his assessment that T20s have tinkered with the mindset of the batsmen. Usually, such an assessment is spot on. But in India’s case, it is far from the truth. Four of India’s top seven in the Adelaide Test have as much scope for a career in international white-ball cricket as that ex-Indian batsman making the assessment. The fifth – Virat Kohli – is one of the best all-format player going around. The truth is on that afternoon, all that could have gone wrong went wrong for India. And the reverse is true for the two tall Australian pacers.
Ahead of the first Test, the management made two selection calls. Prithvi Shaw retained his place due to incumbency. Rishabh Pant lost his place to Wriddhiman Saha despite it. Neither ended well for India.
The toughest job for the coaching staff and the leadership group in the Indian camp right now is to lift the players mentally. The next big headache is to finalize the XI that will be on the field on Boxing Day to save face for the team. And it is not a small headache as India need answers for almost every role.
Will the ‘Shaw’ go on?
If not for his trysts with indiscipline or portraying a body language on the field of a sportsman from a past generation, one would feel sorry for Shaw. In India, criticism and adulation are two sides of the same coin. There is seldom a middle ground for cricketers. Shaw has learnt this lesson at a young age. The youngest Indian to score a Test hundred on debut, the 21-year old has faced more criticism in recent times than some do in their lifetime. As for his performance, neither his technique against quality pace nor his confidence in recent times warrants him to come close to international cricket in the foreseeable future. So what are the options?
India have Shubman Gill and KL Rahul in the ranks as an option to open with Mayank Agarwal. Also, Hanuma Vihari did that job in one Test in Sydney last time India were here. As things stand, Gill is the front-runner for the job. But, things aren’t as straightforward.
A certain Rohit Sharma is waiting in quarantine right now, biding his time to join the team ahead of the third Test. By criteria of form, incumbency, experience and potential, Rohit walks right into the opener’s role for the third Test.
This puts the management in a conundrum. Whoever they choose to open with Mayank will almost certainly make way for Rohit in the next Test. Unless that player outscores Mayank heavily and puts his spot in jeopardy. In any case, whoever gets to play will know that he cannot fail, which is an awkward position to be in for a debutant or a player making a comeback. This might also leave the management with the thought of giving Shaw one more go. That is most likely to not end well.
The big shoes to fill at number four
In all likelihood, Ajinkya Rahane will give himself a promotion and bat at number four. Although a captain of this side, it is only fair that this series should decide his future in India’s Test squad. But, India will still need a player to replace Virat Kohli in the middle-order.
Based on the squad the two options for this role are the two same players who are an option for the opener’s role. Rahul last played a Test during India’s tour to West Indies in August 2019. Since then, he has played one Ranji Trophy game in which he scored 26 runs in two innings. He did not feature in either of the two warm-up games in Australia. His selection in the current Test squad is based on his white-ball success. It is tough to recall the last time that ended successfully for a team.
On the other hand, Gill batted at three in the first warm-up game and opened in the second. He had decent returns in both games and looked like a player who belongs. If India want to be fair to the player making his debut, they should put him in the middle-order where he can play three Tests in a row on this tour.
It is tough being Vihari
Vihari is one player that really deserves our sympathy. Out of his 10 Tests, he has played just one Test in India – the place where all every Indian batsman come back to take revenge for their foreign failures. Even in the niche category as a Test specialist, he falls into a narrower subset of an away Test specialist.
In his short career, he has done everything that the team has asked from him. He has opened in Australia, batted with uncharacteristic aggression on tough pitches in New Zealand and is even the fifth bowling option. Now there are already whispers going around of replacing him with Ravindra Jadeja. India will need a fifth bowling option on the flat MCG wicket but saying that there is not much difference in their batting skill poses a series question on the selectors’ aptitude of earmarking Vihari as an away Test specialist.
If fairness prevails, Vihari should be in the XI at least as an opener before Rohit comes in. Batting at number six, he should be good with the new ball anyway and has done that job in Australia before.
The Pant blunder
It takes some incompetence to not pick a player who scored more hundreds on the last England and Australia tours than India’s five, six and seven in Adelaide put together. Going into Boxing Day, the management should rectify the error and replace Saha with Pant.
One should only hope that the stubbornness of giving Saha one more go should not prevail. It is all but good that Saha is a brilliant team man and the best keeper in the country but the right call has to be made.
The unfortunate swap
Managing without the control of Ishant Sharma was tough for India in the first place. However effective he might be, Umesh Yadav has the propensity to bowl loose balls and release the pressure.
Now, India have lost Mohammed Shami to a fractured wrist. This will result in the next in line, Mohammed Siraj, making his debut. India will be without not one but two first-choice pacers that have earned accolades across conditions in recent times.
After humbling the Indian batsmen, Australia batsmen would be thinking that it is their turn to shine on the flat MCG against a hurt opposition. For India, the only option left is to stand up, brush off the dust and let it go. In every crisis lies an opportunity.