Pujara the loser in 6-5 roulette
The build-up to India's new season has been engaging. Hardly unexpected, with Virat Kohli as the protagonist. At the Fatullah unveiling, he led the team out in their Sunday best: five specialist bowlers. The reasoning is simple enough; to pick up 20 wickets and win Test matches, especially in the subcontinent.
It is an aggressive move. It is India saying they don't want to leak 300 for 3 every time, and it is India saying they trust their batsmen to still get more than 300 for 3 every time. It is an intriguing move, with ramifications spread far and wide.
Although the weather has reduced chances of a result in the only Test against Bangladesh, Kohli could see enough evidence to stand by his preference for a 6-5 combination and persist with it when India visit Sri Lanka and entertain South Africa at home. That would mean India end up playing one batsman short - and leave four batsmen fighting for two spots.
M Vijay, averaging 54.05 over the last 10 Tests, is the established opener. Wriddhiman Saha has to keep wicket. Ajinkya Rahane's mettle in the middle order has increased with every innings. Kohli himself makes four certainties of the XI, and there will be five bowlers.
That leaves the two slots and four batsmen. Cheteshwar Pujara drew the short straw this match, Rohit Sharma's fluency being seen as the better asset at No. 3. Shikhar Dhawan, on his return, made the most of his opportunity. Things happen when you score 150 in half a day's play. And KL Rahul, who fell ill prior to the tour, has toppled down the pecking order despite a century in his last Test innings.
That Sydney pitch posed no more threat than Fatullah's, but Australia's bowlers were another story. Rahul followed up that century with a maiden first-class triple. Still hungry, he gritted through an injured hamstring to make 188 against Tamil Nadu in March. Can't argue against those numbers. Then fate, in the form of his illness, stepped in.
In Fatullah, neither the surface nor the bowling put any pressure on Dhawan. Those nervous first 20 minutes that batsmen talk about never happened. It was like he was visiting a drive-through that was giving away outrageous discounts. He got off to a start, survived a chance and made Bangladesh pay for it. Can't fault him for the opposition not showing up.
"I think that's pretty much the way our openers bat," R Ashwin said. "Shikhar plays his game usually and Vijay settles into his game. So that's pretty much what happened today, there was no conscious effort in terms of saying , 'We have to do this'"
Rohit is of the same mold. A little shaky early on, solid and rapid once he's comfortable. However, two fifties in his last 16 innings indicate he hasn't been able to replicate the process he uses so well in ODIs. His selection, ahead of Pujara's, could be a sign of wanting a line-up that can put a lot of pressure on the opposition as quickly as possible. And should that be the new mandate, one of India's most stable batsmen might be left in limbo.
This is the second Test on the trot that Pujara is sitting out. An average of 24.15 since the Boxing Day game against South Africa in 2013 reflects the vulnerability creeping into his game. He has been uncertain about deliveries at the stumps or just outside off. Outside edges to slip increased, as did inswingers hitting their mark. To remedy those concerns, he stayed back after the tour of England to play for Derbyshire and when he wasn't picked in the IPL auction, returned to county cricket as an overseas professional for champions Yorkshire. Eleven matches, two hundreds and an average of 53.66 was the result.
"You have to leave four people out because you're picking from a 15-man squad," Ashwin said. "I've been left out in the past. Different people have been left out at different times. It's not like you actually look out for sympathy and say Oh my God, this guy has to sit out. That's not how the game goes. Not trying to be harsh, but I'm speaking the truth. Today it was unfortunate that Pujara had to sit out and tomorrow he might play. If you have to play five bowlers, you sacrifice a batsman. As simple as that."
Basic math and shrewd trade for subcontinent conditions. The execution is all that remains.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo