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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Who will make way for Virat Kohli? Agarwal, Gill, Rahane, Pujara or Iyer

Agarwal getting dropped and Bharat or Pujara opening could be the option coach Dravid may opt for.

Written by Abhishek Purohit |
Updated: November 29, 2021 8:01:20 am
Virat KohliAlthough, Virat Kohli is averaging decent scores across all formats but a century remains elusive. (FILE)

Which Indian batter will have to make way for the returning skipper Virat Kohli in the second and final Test match against New Zealand in Mumbai? As the Indian batting line-up stumbled on the fourth morning of the first Test in Kanpur, this question became more pertinent and also more complicated.

India are unlikely to sacrifice a bowler to accommodate Virat Kohli, who has consistently advocated the five-bowler combination. More so after New Zealand resisted India’s three spinners and two fast bowlers for 142.3 overs in their first innings at Green Park.

So it will have to be one from among Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Shreyas Iyer.

Ajinkya Rahane’s run drought

The stand-in captain for the Kanpur Test has had a woeful year with the bat; in 12 Tests in 2021, Ajinkya Rahane averages 19.57. His home record has never been encouraging, and his struggles against spin are familiar.

Among Indian batters who have played at least 32 home Tests — the same that Rahane has — only Mansur Ali Khan ‘Tiger’ Pataudi and Mohinder Amarnath have a home average worse than Rahane’s 35.73.

Convention does not dictate that the stand-in skipper, and also regular vice-captain, sits out the next match, but convention has been broken before by Kohli, when Rahane was left out for the first two Tests on the South Africa tour in 2017-18. However, the new team management under head coach Rahul Dravid might not take the drastic step immediately for the Wankhede Test.

Should Cheteshwar Pujara open?

Cheteshwar Pujara has had a couple of lean years with the bat, with averages of 20.37 and 30.42 in 2020 and 2021. However, unlike Rahane, he averages a commanding 55.33 in India across his career.

One option is for Cheteshwar Pujara to move up a position to open the innings in Mumbai. Like the current head coach, Pujara has done it a few times in Test cricket. In six innings as opener – all in the subcontinent — he averages an incredible 116 and has been dismissed only thrice. The last time he opened was back in 2015, though.

If Pujara is made to open at Wankhede Stadium, it also means Kohli has another couple of decisions to make: who to send in at No. 3, and which incumbent opener to drop.

Mayank Agarwal or Shubman Gill?

Both Mayank Agarwal and Shubman Gill are not exactly first-choice openers at the moment, and are playing because Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul are not. Kanpur was Agarwal’s first Test in nearly a year since Brisbane in January and Gill has also just made a comeback after the World Test Championship final in June.

Gill got a fifty in the first innings at Green Park but had issues against the incoming ball from Kyle Jamieson, by whom he was bowled both times. Meanwhile, Agarwal nicked off outside the off stump twice.

Agarwal is more experienced overall as well as in international cricket than Gill is. But if India take the big decision of playing Pujara as makeshift opener in Mumbai, which of the two incumbents sit out is a lesser call to make.

Assuming Kohli slots in at his regular No. 4, it then leaves either Rahane or Shreyas Iyer to move up to No. 3. Both are used to batting at the position for Mumbai in first-class cricket.

Iyer Shreyas Iyer kisses his helmet after scoring a century (Source: AP)

Drop Shreyas Iyer after debut hundred?

Shreyas Iyer got his Test cap after 54 white-ball games for India and 54 first-class matches, and instantly grabbed it with a debut century. It will be gutting for him to be left out after this, but probably not as much as it was for Karun Nair to find himself on the outside after making a triple ton against England in 2016-17.

Nair had made way for the returning Rahane against Bangladesh following his 303 in Chennai. He came back only after India played an extra batter following the defeat to Australia on a Pune turner.

India wicketkeeper KS Bharat appeals successfully against New Zealand’s captain Kane Williamson. (AP Photo)

Srikar Bharat as debutant opener

A left-field call will be to hand Srikar Bharat a Test debut in Mumbai after his excellent glovework as substitute in Kanpur, and also ask him to open. It is not an unfamiliar slot for Bharat, 77 of his 123 first-class innings have come as opener. The only decision then will be which of Agarwal or Gill to drop, but it will possibly also mean the end of the road for the 37-year old veteran Wriddhiman Saha.

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