It's not often that a team decides to drop their vice-captain, who also happens to be one of the most successful batsmen in the team, especially overseas. It's also not often that a team from India decides to play only five proper batsmen in the first Test match on a tour to South Africa, and that their intent was to bowl first if India had won the toss.
This Indian team is making all the right noises in their quest to be a little different from their predecessors. They are not bound by history but seem to be on a mission to create their own. The way they have performed over the last 24 months in all three formats, even if most of it was at home, they have earned the right to choose their own path without owing an answer or an apology for failing once in a while.
India decided to field six batsmen in the home series against Sri Lanka but went ahead with only five in the first Test against South Africa. One can only assume that perhaps their hand was forced at home because of Hardik Pandya's unavailability for the Test series, and that as soon as he was available, he was drafted into the playing XI.
India started the home series against Sri Lanka with Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul as the two front-line openers but by the end of the third Test, in Delhi, it was clear that Vijay had cemented his place at the top. Since Dhawan was preferred over Rahul in the last Test, it also became apparent that he would play in the first Test match against South Africa, and that is what happened.
Ajinkya Rahane's poor form in red-ball cricket was a concern, for it was the first time he failed to make a single big score in a Test series where he played three or more Tests. Still, his numbers against the white ball were pretty impressive in 2017. Perhaps, there was an opportunity to help him regain the touch in the limited-overs series against Sri Lanka but, unfortunately, it wasn't utilised.
While the conundrum about the openers and Rahane's form was playing out, Rohit Sharma grew in stature with two good innings back to back against Sri Lanka in Tests and an ODI double-hundred, thereby making a strong case for his inclusion in the playing XI for the first Test against South Africa.
Also, there's the small factor of who is batting well in the net sessions, and perhaps both Dhawan and Rohit looked much better than Rahul and Rahane in the lead-up.
Pandya the allrounder
It's widely believed that the Indian team's overseas fortunes are directly proportional to the bowlers' ability to pick up 20 wickets, and there's a strong case for playing an extra bowler in order to achieve that goal. That's where Pandya became a tempting and promising option, for he brings two disciplines to the table, as a capable lower-order batsman with the ability to bowl a few overs every now and then. It would have helped if he had played the series against Sri Lanka, for that would have given a better idea of whether he can actually bat at No. 6, for that's where he'll be required to bat, and if he can consistently bowl 15-18 overs a day - not just be a release bowler but someone capable of taking wickets.
Since he hasn't played a lot of first-class cricket, the jury was still out on whether he fit the bill, but having said that, he is the only player in the squad who allows the team to play a different combination. It was a bold decision to play him in the first Test match, and looking at what he did in Cape Town, it will go down as a master stroke from the team management. They swam against the tide on his inclusion, and if it was not for his innings of 93 and three wickets in the match, India's defeat would have been rather embarrassing.
A three-match series is extremely tricky on a couple of counts. One, if you lose the first match, it becomes a knockout, and it takes a lot to bounce back. Two, it's a little difficult to change the team even if you want to.
Fortunately, India's performance in the first Test match, in spite of the outcome, will hold them in good stead. India didn't just have moments in the Test match but had sessions where they made the hosts sweat. Bhuvneshwar Kumar set up the first morning of the Test beautifully, and the fourth morning produced one of the finest bowling sessions by India outside Asia in a long time.
Pandya's counterattacking knock must give hope and assurance to the rest. Not that this team needs a lot of reassurance, for most of them have not only travelled to South Africa before but have done reasonably well there too. Batting did let the team down in the first Test but it's pragmatic to understand that it's natural for batsmen to take a little bit time to find their bearings against pace, bounce and lateral movement. Cape Town had all three in abundance. After a slightly lacklustre show from Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah in the first innings, the Indian bowling also came together nicely in the second innings.
The real question that the team needs to find an answer for is to do with team selection for the second Test, and that's where a three-match series plays tricks. While Pandya has more than justified his inclusion, he causes a dilemma that India haven't faced hitherto.
Since the batting failed twice, there might be a temptation to play an extra batsman in the second Test, in Centurion (considering there's more pace and bounce in Centurion compared to Cape Town), but that option isn't viable anymore. After Pandya's heroics in the first Test, he is the first name on the team sheet, but that only leaves room for playing five batsmen, for he hasn't done enough to replace one of the faster bowlers. And you wouldn't want to drop the only spinner either. (And the recent batting form of R Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha in Test matches isn't encouraging enough to support the five-batsman theory either.)
The inability to play six batsmen is an issue, but the bigger thing is to choose the right five. There might be a temptation to play both Rahul and Rahane in the second Test, but it will be unfair to drop both or either of Dhawan and Rohit after just one poor Test match. Also, it will make the team management look trigger-happy. If they choose players on the basis of form, which they are entitled to do, it's only fair to stick with them for at least one more match.
The other plausible option could be to play Parthiv Patel in place of Saha and ask him to open, which will open up a middle-order slot for Rahane. But since Saha was exceptional behind the stumps in the first game, it will be unfair to punish him for failing at his secondary skill in a match where the top five batsmen failed too.
The only problem is that if India lose the second Test, there'll be no use of course-correction in the final Test. They made an interesting, somewhat inspired, selection ahead of the first Test. Will they be equally bold and adventurous the second time around too?