Is India's need for speed too costly?
After clinching victory in the third Test, in St Lucia, India's captain Virat Kohli made a revealing statement. He said that he would continue batting at No. 3, one step up from his usual position in Test cricket. In conversation with Sanjay Manjrekar at the post-match presentation, Kohli said that the reshuffle in the middle order was to accommodate Rohit Sharma at No. 5. Meanwhile, Cheteshwar Pujara, the original No. 3, who has averaged 45.44 since his latest comeback, has been dropped to accommodate Rohit.
"We understood Rohit needs to be backed at a particular position," Kohli told Manjrekar, who was curious to know if Kohli would bat at his new position going forward. "I batted at No. 3, Jinks [Ajinkya Rahane] at No. 4. Rohit is dangerous at No.5. That means I take up the extra responsibility at No. 3. I don't mind that and someone like Ashwin is batting well. And we can play five bowlers."
Rohit, Kohli reckoned, had the potential to influence the game with his aggression; the often-used phrase is "he can change a Test in a session". So, in St Lucia, it was not only Pujara who had to sit out. Also missing was regular opener M Vijay, who was fit after a hand injury had kept him out of the second Test. The team management retained KL Rahul, Vijay's replacement in Kingston, to open with Shikhar Dhawan. The incriminating statistic that possibly explains the common fate of Pujara and Vijay is their strike rates - Pujara's strike rate since his comeback is 43.51 [48.2 overall] and Vijay's career strike rate of 46.88.
Kohli and Rahane, who had finally found home at No. 5, having lived an itinerant life in the Indian middle order, moved up a slot each. Kohli endured his lowest match aggregate in Tests, but Rahane had a good Test, scoring 35 and an unbeaten 78. Yet India did leave themselves vulnerable at 126 for 5, and were rescued only by a long and slow partnership between R Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha. The extent to which India will go to accommodate Rohit at No. 5 has drawn various reactions from experts.
Former India captain Sourav Ganguly disapproves of the decision. Writing in the New Indian Express, Ganguly made a case for both sidelined batsmen. "If Murali Vijay is fit, he should be the first-choice opener," Ganguly wrote. "I would still advocate for Pujara at three. One has to remember this position is not only about scoring. Many a time, the No. 3 has to wear out the new ball to make life easy for the rest. Rahul and [Shikhar] Dhawan tend to score briskly, but there will be times when someone will have to bear the brunt of the new ball. For that, Pujara should bat at three, followed by Virat and Rahane at four and five."
As a captain, Kohli has made his motive clear: dominate the opposition by playing positive, aggressive cricket. And these selections are consistent with that plan. Experts who have followed Kohli closely believe he is a keen captain and if there is a toss-up between two players, he shows a preference for the more attacking one.
It is also no secret that Kohli has been a fan of, and has a lot of faith in, Rohit. Despite all his talent and skills, Rohit, the Test batsman, polarises opinion. As many backers as Rohit has within the Indian camp, there are an equal number of - if not more - sceptics outside who do not quite understand the team management's fascination for him. One expert calls it an "obsession" with Rohit. He has batted at every position in the middle order, from 3 to 6, with most of his runs coming lower down, including centuries in his first two Tests. His performance in Test cricket - an average of 32.62 with just those two centuries to his name - does not match this hype, but perhaps Kohli puts it down to his not getting a string of matches in a row.
Still, there are observers asking why a similar amount of patience has not been shown with Pujara, who has shown his mettle in tough situations. It's well known that he scores quick runs after getting himself in. Why not wait for such innings from him, the way they are waiting for Rohit to come good? The team must believe that when Rohit comes good, it will be exceptional, because Kohli is ready to put himself in a position that is not his preferred station. He is still not watertight against the moving new ball, a job the No. 3 often has to do. Many believe Kohli is still fallible outside the off stump, a weakness that was thoroughly exposed on the England tour in 2014.
There is a another school of thought, though, which contends that it is not about Rohit or Pujara or individual players. It is about figuring about the best combinations when challenges tougher than a rebuilding West Indies arrive. Former India and Bengal wicketkeeper-batsman Deep Dasgupta is a fan of this experimentation. "You can't have someone like Rohit Sharma travelling with the team and not getting a chance, and suddenly he gets a chance and you expect him to score," Dasgupta says. "So it is not a bad idea. This was the opportunity the team management had to try things out, to work out what is your best XI."
Surendra Bhave , a former national selector, sees a larger good coming out of this move. According to him, Asian teams and players have always had an attachment to particular positions in the batting order. He finds it refreshing that Kohli is breaking that mould, and is himself making the most uncomfortable move. "What he is saying, essentially, is you have to be detached from a particular number," Bhave says. "There should be flexibility."
Bhave agrees with Kohli's point that if India have to win a Test he has to pick the best combination for those conditions and that opposition. "Putting out the best combination is the most important thing," Bhave says. "And if that means that I have to bat 3 or open, I am willing to do that. That is what he said. I see that as a very positive thing."
As long as the openers' positions are not shuffled, Bhave does not mind keeping the positions of the rest of the middle order flexible. According to Bhave, a former Maharashtra opener and captain, in first-class cricket batsmen have moved up and down the order regularly to bat at whichever position is vacant in the national team. Hence, he says, there is no point being too harsh about India now shuffling their middle order.
As much as he backs Kohli's plan, Bhave says it will not work without conviction. "You have to remain consistent with it," Bhave says. "And the reason behind changing the batting order should never be other than for the team's cause. It is a step forward."
Dasgupta is impressed with Kohli's selfless move up the order. "You are talking about a different mentality here," Dasgupta says. "You are pushing yourself in terms of extending your boundaries, try and get out of your comfort zone. And the best way to do it as a captain yourself. Not just talking in the dressing room, but actually going out there and doing it."
Such a move, Dasgupta says, sends a signal to rest of the team saying, "Keep an open mind, I am there with you, I am backing you to the hilt, let us try out a few things, let us not be stuck in our cocoon and be comfortable where we are."
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo