West Indies v India, 3rd Test, St Lucia August 8, 2016

India's St Lucia Test batting selection riddle

M Vijay missed the second Test but is back to full fitness after his injury replacement KL Rahul scored 158 in Jamaica. Will Vijay come back into the XI at the expense of Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara... or not at all?
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Play 01:11
'We can only choose two between the three' - Kohli

On Sunday night, Cheteshwar Pujara posted a group selfie on Instagram. In it, sharing a dinner table, were himself, Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay and KL Rahul.

"When we r together," Pujara captioned it, "we make the most out of our time."

On Tuesday morning, the four of them will not be together on the team sheet Virat Kohli hands to the match referee. Three will line up at the top of India's batting order. The fourth will find a place near the bottom of the list, among the substitutes.

"Cricket is a very uncertain game at times," Kohli said when he was asked the inevitable question on Monday. "Injuries are not in anyone's hands. Even in the IPL, I remember a game where Mandeep Singh was fit and set to play. While I was at the toss he split his webbing. KL [Rahul] got a chance and he hasn't looked back since. We conveyed to Mandeep that unfortunately it was an injury and nothing can be done about that.

"We need to look at the balance of the side. Good thing is all three openers are playing well. Bad thing is that you can only choose two between three. That is a call we need to take as management. We'll sit down today and do that. These things are not in your control, getting injured when playing well. That's why they say injuries can really upset people and bring them down. The good thing is Vijay has been in a good headspace. He's back to the nets and back to fielding. We'll take a call on that. We still have to discuss that."

Vijay is the equivalent of Mandeep in this situation. He injured his thumb during the first Test, and missed the second. Rahul replaced him and scored 158.

But that is where the comparison ends. Mandeep and Rahul were more or less equal contenders for a spot in Royal Challengers Bangalore's line-up in that match against Gujarat Lions. Both were young and mostly unproven T20 talents hoping to establish themselves. One got injured, the other played in his stead, and made the most of his opportunity. It must not have been too difficult for Kohli to tell a fit-again Mandeep he would have to wait a little longer.

Vijay's case is entirely different. Since the start of India's tour of England in 2014, he has the best average among all of India's Test batsmen. He has made hundreds in England, Australia and Bangladesh, and an important second-innings 82 in Sri Lanka, where he missed two out of three Tests with injury. In the home series against South Africa in November-December 2015, India's last Test assignment before this West Indies tour, Vijay was India's second-highest run-getter on pitches that were square turners by and large.

You can't easily leave out a batsman of that quality, with those numbers behind him, because he got injured and his replacement made a hundred. Kohli, of course, hadn't actually said Vijay would sit out the St Lucia Test. He said India would still need to take a call on the situation. Going by what he said, though, it seems one of the three openers - Vijay, Rahul and Dhawan - will miss out, while Pujara keeps his place at No. 3.

On Monday, anyone looking for clues in India's training session at the Darren Sammy National Cricket Stadium will have gone back disappointed. Vijay and Pujara were the first two batsmen in the nets, and they each spent more than half an hour batting there. Dhawan and Rahul were the next two batsmen in - they had been having slip-catching practice while Vijay and Pujara batted. There was no way to tell which of the four would miss out.

Pujara has had a strange series so far, looking in good defensive shape in both innings he has played. He has spent a lot of time in the middle - helping India win a couple of crucial sessions before falling against the run of play - without being able to convert his starts into substantial scores.

Ordinarily, without the intense competition among the openers, Pujara's place would probably not have come under question just yet. India may have simply viewed it as a case of a player being on the verge of a big score. If they do retain Pujara, this may well be one reason for doing so. The other, obvious reason would be that leaving him out would force one of the openers to bat at No. 3. While it's only one step down the batting order, it's still a different role.

If Pujara keeps his place, he will be under pressure to show he can overcome his tendency to get out after making promising starts, which has afflicted him more or less since that 2014 England tour. Dhawan too will be under pressure. He has made one substantial score in this series - 84 in Antigua - and could therefore consider himself unlucky if he happens to be the batsman dropped. But in his last 10 Test innings, including that 84, he has only scored 289 runs at an average of 32.11.

Before that stretch of iffy form, Dhawan had scored back-to-back hundreds against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He may not have had the opportunity to play those knocks had Rahul not been ruled out of the series with dengue.

Just over a year later, virtually the same scenario has played out all over again, with the same cast and the roles swapped around.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Robby1985__ on August 14, 2016, 4:17 GMT

    Murali Vijay if fit is a an automatic selection to be an opener, he is our most consistent batsman with proven performances in all conditions. He can also accelerate the scoring when necessary. I hope he is in the 11 next match, if not he will soon get back into his spot as soon as the home series start.

  • SamRoy on August 10, 2016, 10:47 GMT

    Either you play the best possible batting lineup currently available (Vijay, Rahul, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane) or play the most aggressive yet pretty solid batting lineup currently available (Vijay, Dhawan, Rahul, Kohli, Rahane). Anything other than that does not make any sense unless Virat Kohli wants his pal Rohit Sharma to play test cricket for India even though Rohit is not good enough to play (problems against swing and seam movement as well as quality spin on turners and having the bad habit of throwing wicket away when set).

  • Aryaparis on August 9, 2016, 16:44 GMT

    Yay, finally it looks like the end of the road for undeserving vijay...kohli will ensure Dhawan gets a long run and Kumble will ensure Rahul gets the nod... bye bye Vijay...

  • ShamiXILEGEND on August 9, 2016, 15:17 GMT

    Dhawan should be dropped. He can only score a 50 after like 4-5 innings.

  • Nampally on August 9, 2016, 14:05 GMT

    Kohli is right in thinking that only 2 out of 3 - Vijay, Dhawan & Rahul- will be in XI. The question of dropping Pujara should never be on the cards. He is leading the Indian Test batting averages, Lifetime. His slow S/R is due to lack of self confidence brought about by Shastri's unfair dropping of Pujara in SL Tests. Whilst other Indian bats play in all 3 formats & can show their form, Pujara has to show it in only Test format which is less frequent than ODI or T20. So Pujara's slow S/R is partly due to Him being unfairly treated in the past. Kumble has to set the record right by instilling the self confidence in Pujara by intimate discussions with him. As for the openers, my own conclusion is Vijay lost his spot due to injury. He will have to wait for either Dhawan or Rahul to fail to get it back. No ill feeling but that is healthy competition. It is the bowlers who need to do their job better for India to Win. So changes in bowling line up are needed to Win. Good luck India!

  • Ram on August 9, 2016, 13:19 GMT

    It's a simple decision. Drop Dhawan. He isnt consistent enough in any format though. Okay next, It gets easier had Pujara made runs. If I was the captain, i would drop Pujara and play Rahul or Vijay at 3 and give dhawan the next two tests. If he continues to fail, close the doors on him and move on. And the Saha conundrum remains. Jadeja would be a better choice than Mishra. Mishra is a good spinner without luck and wickets.

  • Humdingers on August 9, 2016, 13:12 GMT

    Not that hard. Drop Pujara and get Rahul in at No.3. I am a fan of Puj, but he needs a long stint in County and Domestic long form games to get his mojo back. That one IPL season ruined him. That was painful to watch a bloke with this class and temperament. Not bashing the IPL here, but it's plain to see. Rahul at No.3 would be the best choice. It will also put some good pressure on Vijay to hold on to his spot.

  • neevabhi on August 9, 2016, 12:54 GMT

    I have a completely different outlook to this discussion. I feel problem is with having 5 bowlers. Because of which, you have 5 batsmen who are continuously under pressure to perform as there are 2 batsmen on benches waiting - Vijay (1st match was Rahul) and Rohit Sharma. So if you don't score a century - next match you are further under pressure to perform. Add to it, every other batsmen makes century add more pressure. What about bowlers? Are they under similar pressure. I doubt that. 5 pure bowlers doesn't mean good balance. This strategy will be taken apart against better teams.

  • MaheshS.Panicker on August 9, 2016, 12:07 GMT

    I will be appalled if they leave Vijay out! Of the 4 of them, his has to be the one sureshot place. The choice has to be between Dhawan, Rahul and Pujara. And among all of them, I feel Dhawan's case is the weakest. Pujara hasn't really helped his cause in recent times after that outstanding hundred in Sri Lanka and that decisive 77 against South Africa, but he has to have a lot more credit in the bank than Dhawan has. KL Rahul is a young upcoming player brimming with plenty of ability, but he's been all or nothing type so far. Dhawan's technique isn't the greatest, and he hasn't overcome those deficiencies with other aspects of his game. For me it would be Vijay, Rahul and Pujara. I wouldn't mind so much if it is Vijay, Dhawan and Pujara, and I can live with Vijay, Dhawan and Rahul.

  • -switch-hittt- on August 9, 2016, 11:14 GMT

    Top three isnt a big issue they can drop inconsistent dhawan however bowling attack needs changes . I would drop yadav , mishra and ishant and try out younger bowlers like B sran , S thakur , B kumar and others . You've got to see what they have to offer else you'll never know their capabilities if india dont make these changes they 'll never improve their record in aus and eng which very sad. Just keeping the current lot will get you nowhere as we've seen in the past .

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