Mohammed Shami was on fire at the Indian team nets on Tuesday. He made one rear off a length to Virat Kohli and then bowled a lovely inswinger to rattle the stumps. Shami, along with Umesh Yadav, is India’s pace spearhead and they have few competitors at the moment in the Test side. But an excess of riches can create a batting dilemma when it comes to the openers.
The batting sequence, or batting time, in the nets is not always an indicator of the match strategy. On Tuesday afternoon, as India trained at Eden Gardens, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan were first to enter the nets. Murali Vijay waited his turn and as he began his stint, Rahul and Dhawan, along with Cheteshwar Pujara, went to the other side of the ground to take throwdowns. By the time the trio were finished, Vijay had been bowling off-spin — straight and flattish.
Vijay was India’s first-choice opener in Tests till a wrist injury ruled him out of the Sri Lanka tour in July-August. As he revealed, Vijay had been playing with a “fractured wrist” during the home Test series against Australia. He missed the IPL and went to London for surgery.
Vijay’s injury gave Dhawan a foothold. And he grabbed the opportunity. In three Tests in Sri Lanka, Dhawan scored 358 runs including two centuries and was the Man of the Series.
With Vijay playing through pain during an elongated home season last term, his batting became a little restricted. “I couldn’t play certain shots and when I went out to bat, I had to grind it out,” he had confessed. Still he scored 771 runs in 12 Tests and hit three centuries, although his average, 36.71, dropped a little. After a long injury lay-off, he returned to competitive cricket in the Duleep Trophy and then featured in three Ranji Trophy matches. A century against Odisha warmed him up nicely for the Tests.
Dhawan, meanwhile, had been playing limited-overs internationals for India and came here without any first-class cricket behind him. But being part of the Indian team, he has had the advantage of continuity as far as international cricket is concerned.
Last season, the Indian team management had faced a similar sort of dilemma, albeit in the middle-order, when Karun Nair replaced an injured Ajinkya Rahane and smashed 303 not out against England at Chepauk. But as Rahane recovered from his finger injury, Nair was dropped from the Test team for the one-off game against Bangladesh. The Karnataka batsman earned the dubious distinction of being dropped for the next Test after scoring a triple ton. At the same time, it showcased India’s talent pool.
“I feel one game doesn’t overshadow two years of hard work from another player. You need to understand what Jinks (Rahane) has done for the team over the past two years. He averages almost 50 in this format and is probably the most solid batsman in the team in the Test format,” Kohli had said then.
Replacing a relative newcomer with a proven performer like Rahane, however, was an easier option. In Dhawan’s case, not only did he perform consistently over a period of two months in an overseas tour, but the left-hander also has the experience of 26 Tests under his belt.
Rahul looks untouchable, when he is fit, by dint of his sheer quality. Over the past 15-odd months, he has scored 1,086 runs in 14 Tests at an average of 57.15. India have won 10 of those Tests. But the 25-year-old is very injury-prone. The latest in the list was a shoulder injury that had kept him out of the IPL and the Champions Trophy after the Australia series in February-March. “So far it (the injury and the period after that) has been challenging not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. To be at home and not do anything is frustrating,” he had lamented.
Rahul also missed the first Test in Sri Lanka but he returned to score 142 runs in two innings. He and Dhawan had a 188-run partnership at Kandy, with both taking the attack to the opposition. He comes to the Kolkata Test with seven half-centuries on the spin in the longest format.
As the return series between India and Sri Lanka is set to begin, Rahul and Dhawan look shoo-ins as openers. But Vijay’s experience, hard work and contribution over the past three seasons would be difficult to ignore. India have a happy problem to live with.