In five overseas Tests against South Africa and England in 2018, India have scored 209, 135, 307, 151, 187, 247, 274, 162, 107 and 130. There is a pattern emerging herein. Consider what the openers put up in these ten innings: 18, 30, 28, 16, 13, 51, 54, 22, 10 and 13.
In these five Tests, India have used two opening pairs – Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay in two matches, and Vijay with KL Rahul in the rest. There is no point arguing which pair has done better, for they have both fared equally poor. Refer to the scores above again, and India simply haven’t got starts that can be converted into advantageous positions on overseas soil.
Dhawan is playing Test cricket by default at the moment. He has never completed any tour against South Africa, England or Australia, which has three or more Tests. He was dropped from Test plans in 2017, only for Vijay’s injury ahead of the Sri Lanka tour last summer to revive his sagging career. Ideally, he shouldn’t be in England at all.
Rahul, meanwhile, is short of confidence. The team management has played with his batting spot so many times across different formats that it is tough to surmise what is even going on in his head. Dropped after failing in one ODI innings in Lanka last year, then dropped after failing in one ODI innings this summer, and now shafted up/down the batting order at Edgbaston and Lord’s – Rahul is in a very confusing state at the moment.
It is a mess of the team management’s own making, and yet they kept a constant herein. Almost as a buffer for their experimentation, Vijay has played all five overseas Tests this year. Why, he even opened against Afghanistan, with Dhawan as Rahul batted at three. So, that makes six Tests in all – it is surprising consistency given the low-rate otherwise set by this Indian think-tank.
Even so, Vijay has failed to repay this faith with a string of low scores – 1, 13, 46, 9, 8, 25, 20, 6, 0 and 0. That is a total of 128 runs in 10 overseas innings at an average of 12.8. Never mind his hundred against Afghanistan, this is a headache that India desperately did not need at this present time.
It has always been his wont to bat as a stoic rock even when consistency around him – in terms of selection or runs – is absent. Look back at his tours to England and Australia in 2014, and India were in that comfort zone at the top, even while Dhawan (and later Gautam Gambhir) were busy failing.
Vijay scored 402 runs in 5 Tests against England then. Such was the standard set that he was criticized for not carrying his form throughout the series as India surrendered the lead to lose 3-1. He made amends for it in Australia, scoring 482 runs in 4 Tests, almost nonchalantly shrugging off those who had complained against him.
You want to ask what has happened to him, now? Isn’t he a more experienced batsman, capable of channeling that into better performance? Isn’t that the norm in international cricket?
The answer is found in his pre-series press conference in South Africa earlier this year. He had talked about ‘intent’, a much-abused word during that tour. It brought to mind one of the earliest criticisms against Vijay in 2013. During the South Africa tour in December back then, he had managed 148 runs in 2 Tests. It wasn’t an exceptionally bad output, but in the first innings of that tour – at Johannesburg – he scored at a strike-rate of 14.28.
Vijay did score at 40-plus (his career strike-rate) during the remainder of that trip, but the point crossed home. That explains why he spoke about scoring runs whilst staying at the wicket, in essence making a better start to this recent South African or England tours. Thing is, this approach doesn’t work for him.
Take, for example, how he got out to James Anderson in the second innings at Lord’s. In the first innings, he tried turning a late out-swinger to the leg-side and was bowled. It was almost a defiance of the ‘Monk’ in him. Would he have played that shot? No, instead, he would have come forth with a defensive forward prod.
The second innings’ dismissal was equally inexplicable. Vijay was amply forward this time, but only managed a thin inside edge as the Lord’s slop allowed Anderson to angle the ball further in. Perhaps he should have tried the on-side flick on this occasion.
The underlying point isn’t to highlight one man’s failure given how the entire batting set-up failed. Instead, it is to say that a particular vital contribution is missing. If Vijay spends time at the wicket, and scores runs, he automatically shields the middle and lower order. It is but a given that India will then score higher than they have so far this year.
The question, after repeated failures, is if Vijay will be given that chance. ‘Maybe Dhawan and Rahul will open in Nottingham’, was the joke going around in the Lord’s press box on Sunday. Mind you, the answer isn’t in chopping or changing once again.
Fielding a third new combination in the next match is simply not an option because consistency has to be the mantra going ahead. It is a case of persisting with your best options, and despite his poor form, Vijay is still a better option to open the innings, at least ahead of Dhawan if not Rahul.
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