Cricket: The Muddle Order

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains
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With Cheteshwar Pujara belying his initial promise and Rohit Sharma victim to his own aggression, the Indian Test team seem clueless on who should play where
A day before the second Test against Sri Lanka in Colombo, India’s practice roster lay around on a couple of kitbags. It was an ordinary sketch board, with essential information of the order in which batsmen and bowlers would spend this pre-match practice session. Usually, the Indian team follow a set practice pattern for Tests. The openers bat together in adjacent nets, one facing a pace bowler, the other a spinner. When done, they switch around. The rest of the batting line-up follows the same protocol. Numbers three and four batsmen bat, and so on, with bowlers lining up for a hit afterwards. Even those who might not feature in the impending match get a go at the end. As such the playing eleven is easy to guess at most times.

It was the same case at the P Sara Oval stadium. Umesh Yadav batted first, practising his big shots, indicating that he had made the cut ahead of the wayward Varun Aaron. Harbhajan Singh didn’t bat either, and he didn’t play.

Cheteshwar Pujara did bat though, but together with Murali Vijay and KL Rahul, the customary position for a No 3 batsman. Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane took throw-downs, their usual pre-match ritual of not batting in the nets intact. Then Rohit Sharma batted with Stuart Binny and Wriddhiman Saha in tow. All of this was marked up clearly on that sketch board, but for once the pointers weren’t clear.

What was Rohit doing batting with Saha and Binny, if he had been earmarked by the team management to be the No 3 batsman? Did his poor form suggest that Pujara could actually be in contention come toss time?

It so happened that Pujara was only a stand-by for Vijay in case he didn’t recover sufficiently from his right hamstring injury. Rohit did not bat at No 3 either. In fact, it was Rahane who was promoted up the order as his Mumbai teammate was slotted back to No 5. After the first 27 balls in the match, both Vijay and Rahane were back in the pavilion. At 12/2, it made for some wonder if the Indian team had shot itself in the foot with this constant merry go-round in their batting line-up.

When Pujara made his debut in 2010, against Australia at Bangalore, he was considered an optimal solution to a grave problem. Sourav Ganguly had retired two seasons ago and yet the Indian team was struggling to replace him. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina had failed to convert their ODI/T20 flamboyance into Test solidity. As if to drive home that very point, then skipper MS Dhoni made a surprising move. In only his second innings, Pujara batted at No 3 ahead of Rahul Dravid, scoring 72 in a successful chase of 207 runs. Injury forced him out of the reckoning for another season or so, returning to the national fold only when Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman called time on their careers.

With a penchant for big scores in domestic cricket—Pujara has three First- Class triple hundreds—he needed to make this second chance count. And he did so in glorious fashion. In ten home Tests in 2012/13 against New Zealand, England and Australia, he notched up 1,073 runs at 82.53 with four hundreds, two of which were double hundreds.

As India started their overseas journey in the winter of 2013, Pujara made good on his promise in South Africa and scored 280 runs in two Tests there. Comparisons with Dravid were inevitable, yet he was more in Laxman’s mould, using his bottom-hand to great effect, stepping out to the spinners whenever he fancied, and most of all scoring at a strike-rate of 49.25.

In between Tendulkar’s retirement and Kohli’s subsequent rise, Pujara was getting his fair share of glory. Then, it all went downhill.

In two Tests in New Zealand (February, he had scores of 1, 23, 19 and 17. Pujara looked to be playing too many shots before he got set. Perhaps smaller grounds there were inviting him to, yet it was important to realise his mistake and move on from this blip as sterner stuff lay ahead.

The fives Tests in England (2014) then were a massive dent to his growing stature. He scored one half-century all through ten innings on that tour, and it came at Nottingham on a pitch that was a sleeping beauty for five days. He managed to cross the 30-run mark only twice and averaged a pitiful 22.20 on that trip. What had gone so wrong?

“As a player, I feel there are always some tough times in your career. The England tour was one of those series when nothing went my way. When you are successful, you don’t worry about your game or your mental strength. So when you fail, naturally there are questions asked and that’s the time to grow up as a cricketer and handle that pressure. I realised a few things I was doing wrong and needed to work on. I tried correcting that, but it didn’t work. I have worked hard with Duncan Fletcher [the then coach] and rectified the flaws in my batting. It should show soon enough,” he had said in Adelaide before the four-Test series against Australia (2014-15).

In six innings Down Under then, Pujara scored 73, 21, 18, 43, 25 and 21. Then, Dhoni retired after that third Test in Melbourne, and Kohli became the new full-time Test skipper. And Pujara was dropped from the Sydney Test.

“I don’t think Cheteshwar is in poor form, especially his figures from the Australian tour do not suggest so,” said Arvind Pujara, his father, who also doubles up as his coach and mentor, in the build-up to the new season. “Test cricket isn’t only about scoring runs, but it is also about batting for time. If you consider the balls he faced in Australia, he was nearly back to his best. The problem was that he didn’t build up on his starts and couldn’t get big runs.”

The manner in which Pujara batted in Australia was in sync with his father’s words. But it was too little to impress the new think-tank that assumed control ahead of that fourth Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). Any new captain is more than justified in bringing new ideas to the fore, and with Kohli coming up to take Dhoni’s place, it was more than needed to turn around India’s overseas fortunes.

Rohit batted at No 3 in both innings at the SCG. Five months later, he batted at the same spot in the one-off Test against Bangladesh in Fatullah. In Sri Lanka two months later, he played another two innings at number in Galle. In these five innings, 53, 39, 6, 9 and 4.

In Sydney, he threw his wicket away in the first innings in a bid to attack Nathan Lyon. Rohit got out playing a sweep, a shot he struggled with throughout the series against the off-spinner.

In Bangladesh, he got out attacking the bowler on the eleventh ball he faced, and was bowled, going for a big shot again. In the first innings at Galle, he was LBW twice to an inswinger, saved the first time only by a no ball. Whatever the team had expected from him in this role was clearly not delivered.

“Rohit brings flair to number three,” said batting coach Sanjay Bangar ahead of the first Test in Galle. “If he gets going and gets a big one, it will be instrumental in us scoring 300 runs within a day’s play.” It was in keeping with aggressive, in-your-face mentality that the new skipper wanted to instill in his players from day one.

By the end of this fifth inning, perhaps a change in thinking was starting to come about. “Rohit can bat long when he is set, and score runs quickly, but he just needs to be a little more solid initially,” said Ravi Shastri after the shocking 63-run defeat in Galle.

Truth be told, this move was based on an assumption that just didn’t work for the team. Rohit is someone who likes to play his shots, and there is nothing wrong in this. But at different times, his temperament with shot selection has come under serious questioning.

There is no way to explain his premeditated leave to Dale Steyn (he was bowled shouldering arms to an incoming delivery) in Durban—this happened in December 2013—for example, or holing out ten minutes before tea in a bid to attack Moeen Ali at Southampton, which was in July 2014.

The approach of this new Kohli-Shastri combination is interesting. They want to dominate the opposing team from the get-go and have subsequently been making their team selections based on this principle. But results need to reflect this. To succeed at No 3, there is some degree of defence needed to counter difficult circumstances, such as those in the second innings at Galle. A temperamental batsman might not be the best option, and the managers realised their error ahead of the second Test. Maybe, just maybe, they had chosen the wrong man all along.

In the past one-and-a-half years, Rahane has been India’s most consistent batsman. He has scored runs everywhere—South Africa, New Zealand, England, Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But he isn’t someone defined by his success. It is his failure that ignites that burning desire in him, that hunger to score runs. “I like batting at No 3, though I don’t have a positional preference. When I got out in the first innings [for 4 runs], I was very hurt. I came early to the ground and worked with our batting coach,” he said after his fourth Test hundred at the P Sara Oval. All his centuries have come in Tests played outside India (he has played only one match at home). It is a keen pointer to his ability.

Yet, it is his dedication to the team cause that is unparalleled in the current context. Pushing him up to No 3 seemed a desperate move on the management’s part to shield Rohit. Despite incessant criticism, they were not prepared to drop him from the eleven. Their last- ditch move depended on Rahane coming good, that too in a Test they couldn’t afford to lose or Sri Lanka would have won the series.

And he delivered. Rahane’s 126 runs in the second innings was a measure of his solid technique as well as his ability to score runs whilst sizing up the situation of the match. Twice he had to build it up from scratch as Lankan bowlers upped the pressure. Twice he let go of the careful approach, to score quickly, and helped his side set a 413-run target, which ultimately proved too much for the hosts. It was India’s first Test win in 13 months.

More importantly, after a wait of four Tests, it was Kohli’s first win as skipper. And the fact wasn’t lost on him. “We will try to stick to the same batting line-up. You need to figure out who’s playing well at that point, and who can handle a particular position well,” he said after the 248-run victory. He added later that Pujara would be opening in the third Test, starting Friday (28 August) at the SSC in Colombo, after Vijay was ruled out due to a recurrence of his hamstring problem.

At this juncture, certain questions need to be asked. Pujara did himself no favour by failing to score big in the past year. Since his 153 in Johannesburg in December 2013, he hasn’t scored a hundred in 22 Test innings. This isn’t to say Rohit has fared any better. Since his 111 not out against West Indies in November 2013, he too doesn’t have a single century in 21 innings.

Kohli had inherited a settled batting line-up that could push forth India’s Test fortunes. Why is it then that one batsman is being persisted with, the whole batting order disturbed to accommodate him? Why is the other waiting for his chance, all over again, despite having proved his utility in the past?

“We have communicated this in the team before that no one is playing in this team for personal glory or personal achievements in this tour,” said the young skipper, when asked how he explained this situation to Pujara. “Our main aim is to win a Test match, and for that if someone has to chip in for one game and then miss out for the next, it is understandable. Whatever is done is for the betterment of the team. Shuffling, chipping and changing, cutting and changing, I don’t really mind doing that. Eventually what you want to do is win a Test match.”

Victory allows for such easy answers. But what happens if Rohit’s inconsistent Test record catches up with him at No 5 as well? How will they explain the re- arrangement of this middle order then?

(Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains)