India in West Indies, 2016 August 17, 2016

Is India's need for speed too costly?

Under Virat Kohli, India have tended to go for quick-scoring batsmen at the expense of solid players. Is it an error in judgement or a larger sign of flexible thinking and practices?
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The Rohit question has prompted much debate in India's cricketing circles © AFP

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • philipsmgp on August 18, 2016, 17:47 GMT

    So everyone thought 2 Spinners needed to play in this pitch. But India going in with just one. Cos kohli didnt want to bat at one down and didnt want rohit out of the team. So there it is Pujara the scape goat comes one down to cover Kohli and Rohit at the expense of a spinner. All the talks about going in with 5 bowlers to get 20 wickets is just rubbish. Indian team is always about the captain and coach's favourites.

  • kgnraaj on August 18, 2016, 14:03 GMT

    Kohli is on experimenting due to poor opposition. Reality is Rohit is going to be disaster. Pujara and Vijay provide the solidarity needed in test cricket. They are underrated despite proving their skills on test compared to Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit. Once the opposition is stronger the colurs of Rohit and the false confidence of Kohli will wash out. Poor Pujara and Vijay they have to undergo the self belief when they are called.

  • cric2Monkey on August 18, 2016, 13:12 GMT

    @VENKATR_11 - I am totally with you for giving Rohit a fair run, while Pujara is struggling. But this has become a bigger debate because it has unsettled Kohli and Rahane by moving them up. To expose the solidity of the lineup, for the sake of trying a player is the biggest concern. Now what if Rohit fails in 7 tests. Will Pujara slot back at No.3? Will Kohli again move down? I have no issues if Rohit can slot in @ #3, and isnt he the golden boy with all talents :)

  • Jose...P on August 18, 2016, 13:05 GMT

    Joker is a funny card, in a deck of playing cards. Has high value in some games (say, 20-20/50-50) or low value in others (say, Tests)

    All captains are often dealt with cards with a joker; or two. Or, on their own will N' pleasure pick up one or two, for fun and punt.

    Instances are many, far and wide. Yuvi, Raina, Rohit, Alex Gales, Jason Roy, Marx Bros, Henriques, David Miller, Pollard (not yet?), Afridi... oh, my God, the list will go on and on!

    Hmm...

    World is changing. Instant Coffee! Instant Noodles! Now, Instant runs in Test Cricket! Hey, Oldtimers, whether version 01, or 02 as someone dubbed me, We better change. Before we become sort of jokers in these threads.

  • Raja92 on August 18, 2016, 12:44 GMT

    Team India needs two solid players in the top 3 spots and 1 attacking opener, so that in difficult conditions at least the middle order is protected. If we lost 5 early wickets against WI how do you not expect to loose more against even better sides and even tougher pitches? At that time not even Ashwin and Saha may save us. Alistair cook has had a very bad 2 year patch but England still stuck with him even as captain and he is back to form now. I am not comparing Pujara with Cook as Cook is a proven cricketer but what I want to point out is what backing can do to a good player. From the outside it looks like Kohli is waiting for a chance to put Rohit back in the team instead of backing Pujara and giving him confidence which puts a lot of stress on the palyer and effects how he plays. As a captain I think the most important thing is to back the players. I think very one would be happy if India works hard for their victory every time than win once in a style with a game changer.

  • venkatr_11 on August 18, 2016, 11:58 GMT

    @GUPPYS_CLASSMATE: Point is Pujara has got a fair run and he hasn't made enough scores. we can talk about Rohit when he gets a fair run of 6-7 games and I would agree then. If you read the comments, you can see a prejudice against Rohit and I am looking at it from a neutral perspective. No one care's to look for Pujara's failure. if Blunting the attack was sufficient for a test bat, Aakash Chopra would have played 100 matches for India. Rahul Dravid was a champion batsman because he was able to Blunt first and then score big runs. Pujara on that count has been failing off late, as simple as that.

  • foursandsixes on August 18, 2016, 11:21 GMT

    Pujara has been in terrible form of late. If he was in 2014 form, no question.. But why should he take his place for granted? Perfect time now against weak WI to try out few different options.

  •   Harshavardhan Thyagarajan on August 18, 2016, 11:19 GMT

    I think the shuffle is a worthwhile experiment against the weak Windies. In the long term, we'll have to play the order Ganguly called for.

    Vijay- Rahul Pujara Kohli Rahane Ashwin Saha 4 bowlers depending on conditions. One of Mishra/Jadeja/someone else in turning conditions 4 quicks - Ishant Sharma, Yadav, Shami, Bhuvneshwar.

    Sorted.

  • mrhamilton on August 18, 2016, 11:04 GMT

    Mr Nagoo Pudi thank u so much for this article I wholeheartedly agree.Kohli is trying to raise the ante...lets see if it plays out!

  • akashchandran on August 18, 2016, 9:25 GMT

    Players who excel in ODI and T20 always get extra opportunities in Test cricket under the hope that they may replicate their limited overs brilliance in Test cricket. These players may even do well in a few Test matches but they lack the technique and more importantly the temperament to play consistently in difficult conditions. Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and now Rohit Sharma also fall under this category.

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