When the Indian team for these last two Tests was picked, it made for an odd selection. Mostly, it was expected that Bhuvneshwar Kumar would make a comeback and reinforce India’s attack to make a bid for an historic series' win. That didn’t happen. Instead, another senior player was dropped.
Following his poor run in South Africa, Murali Vijay managed only 26 runs in two Tests. There was nothing wrong in leaving him out, for mid-series’ selections allow for such chopping and changing. Only this time, the new entrant in the Test squad was 18-year-old batting sensation Prithvi Shaw.
If you are sitting on the fence, it was an odd decision. In the midst of a see-sawing series, you would think that the selectors would send in properly experienced and tested players to help tilt the contest in our favour. And this is where you look around, trying to figure out names, those who could help propel India’s case further. Then, you find there is no one.
In truth, India’s opening wares are nearly empty. Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan are the experienced hands that India invested in six years ago. Thereafter only KL Rahul came along as a full-time opener. In this interim, Cheteshwar Pujara and Parthiv Patel have been stopgap openers as well. Then there is also Abhinav Mukund, who was called back for a brief period during the 2016-17 season, and featured against Australia as well as Sri Lanka.
Pujara cannot be asked to open, period. Mukund suffered in England when he toured here in 2011, so that is not an option. Thus, when Vijay was dropped, Indian cricket had no choice but to take a step forward into the future. The time is here, and now, to blood the next line of Test openers.
Mayank Agarwal is the first name that comes to mind, thanks to his chart-topping accumulation in the past domestic season. In England though, as part of India A, he failed – 69 runs in four innings against West Indies A and England A, including a highest of 68. Simply put, he wasn’t ready; never mind that his domestic high scores had come on easier pitches.
But after scoring 250 runs in four innings (including a highest of 188 against West Indies A, Shaw simply couldn’t be ignored. Rishabh Pant had scored well in the same A-series, and his selection was the perfect trigger to get things rolling in favour of Shaw as well. Just like Pant replaced the misfiring Dinesh Karthik then, it makes sense to abandon caution and include Shaw in the playing eleven at the Oval.
The question to ponder will be, from Dhawan and Rahul, whom to leave out.
Let it be said here that Dhawan shouldn’t have been in the Test squad in the first place, or even in the playing eleven for the Birmingham Test, that too ahead of Pujara. Given how poorly the Indian openers have fared, let it also be said here that Dhawan was given a lifeline to save his Test career, when Vijay was dropped for the Nottingham Test in a desperate bid to turn around the 2-0 scoreline.
Dhawan has toiled hard at Nottingham and Southampton, helping provide sedate starts in both Tests. He has played late, closer to the body and cut down on risky strokes. Even so, he has been out playing hard-handed shots and at age 32, it is simply too late for him to change his game as per overseas conditions. Ideally, this should be his last Test series on foreign soil.
This is where Rahul’s form complicates things. 113 runs in 8 innings in England is not the sort of return expected from someone hailed by Sunil Gavaskar as the 'next big thing in Indian cricket'. In the summer, Rahul’s IPL exploits raised a vision that this was a very hungry batsman, who was eager to make up for time lost and reclaim what was his. Things haven’t gone according to plan since then.
It now seems that Rahul never really recovered from being unceremoniously dropped after scoring a duck in the second ODI at Lord’s. Even the best batsmen can take such a hit in confidence, and this is only his first full tour to England, where – let’s be honest – conditions have been very tough for top-order batsmen. Facing the Dukes ball then, Rahul’s form has borne the full brunt.
The underlying point thus is that India now have to rebuild, particularly with the tour of Australia in sight, and it must start now. Due to the poor form of Rahul, India have no choice but to sustain with Dhawan for a while longer, for they cannot afford two greenhorn openers against the Australian pace attack raring to go after the bans of Steve Smith and David Warner.
And therefore, the time to blood Prithvi Shaw is now. There is nothing for India to lose with the series already gone. It provides a rare opportunity to blood a sensational youngster, who is outscoring his teenage peers. Even if he fails to get going, he is too young to be discarded and will only climb the ladder back quickly.
Alternately, the hope of Shaw’s success will help find out the value of his true potential. Can he deal with the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad and justify those comparisons with the almighty Sachin Tendulkar? It is time to find out.
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