Vijay and Pujara conspicuous by their absence
Rohit Sharma's last Test for India, before Tuesday, came at the Feroz Shah Kotla in December 2015, against South Africa. In the first innings, batting at No. 6, he was dropped at slip on 1, off Kyle Abbott, and was out to the next ball he faced, trying to hit Dane Piedt over the top when he had a fielder back at long-on. In the second innings, he was promoted to No. 3, and was bowled first ball by a Morne Morkel jaffa.
In those two innings, Rohit had gone from one end of the batting-dismissal spectrum to the other.
On Tuesday at the Darren Sammy Stadium, in his first Test innings in eight months, Rohit did not get out playing an aggressive, aerial shot with the odds stacked against him. He did not get out to an unplayable delivery either. Instead, he got out like a lot of Test batsmen do, nicking a good-length ball in the corridor outside off stump. It was a middle-of-the-spectrum kind of dismissal, with the bowler deserving a certain amount of credit and the batsman a certain amount of blame.
It happens to everyone.
Neither Vijay nor Pujara was playing this Test match. One of the two was expected to miss out, but not both. Rohit's selection was entirely unexpected.
At the end of the day's play, batting coach Sanjay Bangar confirmed that Vijay was not suffering any residual effects of the sore thumb that had kept him out of the second Test at Sabina Park.
"Murali Vijay was available for selection, but it was the management's decision to stick with Shikhar Dhawan," he said. "KL [Rahul] had a phenomenal last game and the team management felt Shikhar had done enough to keep his place in the team, having scored a very, very good 87  and given us the start in the first innings [in Antigua], negotiating the new ball and giving us a partnership of 90 runs [105 runs, with Kohli]. That was the reason behind Vijay not making it to the playing XI."
Pujara had not been in bad form, as such, but had failed to convert a string of starts. At Sabina Park, he had been run out after scoring 46 off 159 balls. At the toss on Tuesday, Kohli indicated that Pujara's scoring rate may have been the reason for his non-selection.
"Rohit Sharma can change sessions in a Test match. Taking nothing away from Pujara; he has been solid. Everybody needs to get chances."
Kohli has often spoken of the need for giving his bowling attack as much time as possible to get 20 wickets. Scoring runs quicker is clearly one way to achieve this aim. India didn't quite have enough time to bowl West Indies out a second time at Sabina Park, but that had less to do with Pujara's scoring rate, or that of the team as a whole, than with rain washing out close to four sessions of the match.
Perhaps India factored the weather into their calculations here. St Lucia has experienced intermittent showers in the days leading up to the Test, including on the eve of the match, and it rained briefly an hour after stumps on day one as well.
But by including Dhawan, who, apart from that 84 in Antigua, hasn't been in a great run of form; a still-inexperienced Rahul; and Rohit, still unproven in Test cricket, India were taking the risk of compromising the solidity of their top order. Coming into the St Lucia Test, Pujara (97.15) and Vijay (86.52) sat on top of the balls-per-dismissal table containing the seven specialist batsmen in India's squad. Rohit (64.15) and Dhawan (69.06) occupied the bottom two spots.
|Batsman||Balls faced||Dismissals||Balls per dismissal|
On the quickest, bounciest surface of the series so far, and against the best bowling attack West Indies have fielded, India's batting line-up, with Kohli and Rahane batting out of position, seemed at its most brittle. India slumped to 126 for 5 and may not have recovered to the extent they did, had R Ashwin not been dropped once and caught once off a no-ball.
It must be said, of course, that on another day, even on the same pitch and against the same bowlers, the same selections may have worked for India. But there is one other potential repercussion that India will need to deal with - the effect on the two batsmen left out.
Vijay has done no wrong apart from getting injured. India's team management must already have spoken to him at length explaining why he did not immediately slot back into the side when he was fit. When he returns to the side, he will know he simply has to get on with his game, and has nothing to prove to anyone.
Pujara's case is different. The team management, based on Kohli's words at the toss, seems to have left him out on the basis of how he bats. It is a method that has served him well, for the most part, all his life. His strike rate has fallen over the last couple of years, but that is a function of the unconverted starts; earlier, he would begin just as patiently, and then suddenly, imperceptibly, flick a switch that changed him into a free-scoring batsman with shots all around the ground.
In Hyderabad against Australia in 2013, Pujara was on 18 off 65 balls at one stage, and went on to score 204 off 341. In the second innings of the Johannesburg Test in December 2013, he was on 9 off 64 balls before accelerating to finish on 153 off 270. At the SSC last year, he went from 32 off 116 to 145* off 289.
He hasn't been making big scores as often as he used to, and there has to be a reason for it, but his approach at the start of his innings is probably not it. India's team management will need to help him figure out what is wrong, and what needs to change, and it is perfectly possible that leaving him out and getting him to work in the nets is the best way to do it. Rohit Sharma may well be in better form at the moment, and have the greater possibility of contributing to India's success.
But by suggesting that Pujara's method may not quite suit the team's philosophy, they leave him wondering if he should continue to trust his game or try to change it. They risk shattering the confidence of a batsman of serious ability.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo