Shreyas Iyer's century and fifty in his debut Test, the only time an Indian batter has done so, has turned the spotlight squarely on Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara as full-time captain Virat Kohli returns for the Mumbai Test next week. India's batting coach, Vikram Rathour, however, has thrown his weight behind the two veteran batters without giving any hints into whether Iyer will be retained for the next Test.
Rathour was specifically asked about how much of a concern the returns from the "two senior cricketers" have been. "Of course we want our top order to contribute, but the cricketers you mentioned have played 80 and 90 Test matches so they have the experience," Rathour said. "Of course to play that many games they must have done well for us. I understand both of them are going through a lean phase but they have played very very important knocks for us in the past, and we are pretty sure they will come back and play more important knocks for our team in the future as well."
Rahane now averages 24.39 over his last 16 Tests, including one century in the Boxing Day Test. With scores of 35 and 4 in this Test, his career average has now dipped below 40. At home he averages 35.73.
In 23 Tests since the 2018-19 tour of Australia, Pujara has not scored a century and has averaged 28.61. He has played important supporting knocks in Australia and in England, but has never regained the fluency of his batting, which shows in a strike-rate of 36.1 over the period. Pujara managed 26 and 22 in this Test.
At one stage, India were 51 for 5, an overall lead of 100 on a surface both teams feel hasn't deteriorated as much as you expect pitches in India to do. From the precarious situation, India were helped by the slowness of the pitch and the absence of a menacing spinner who could follow up on the good work done by the two seam bowlers.
Iyer and Wriddhiman Saha took India to safety before India practically batted New Zealand out of the game. Had India been struggling in the Test, the scrutiny on Pujara and Rahane would have been more intense. Still Rathour was asked how many Tests can be given even to proven performers if the runs are not coming.
"I don't think we can put a number to that," Rathour said. "That really depends on the situation the team is in, and what the team requires."
So what happens when Kohli comes back? "The captain coming back in will happen in Mumbai, I understand," Rathour said. "We will get to that point when we reach Mumbai. At this point we are focused on this game. There is still a day to go, and a game to be won. So we are really focused on this game."
At least can you confirm Iyer will play the next Test? "That decision we will take when we land in Mumbai," Rathour said.
These are of course difficult decisions to make, but a team management would rather players outside the XI keep those in under pressure than there not being enough alternatives. A similar situation is brewing in the wicketkeeping department, but there Rathour confirmed Rishabh Pant takes over when he comes back.
"Unfortunately for Wriddhi, we have an extremely special player, Rishabh Pant, who is the No. 1 keeper for the team, who has done extremely well for us in the past two years," Rathour said. "That's the role Wriddhi has at the moment. He is there whenever we need him. Whenever Pant is not there. Again he showed today with the knock he played today that how important he is and how good he is."
However, you can't be so sure about even that role for Saha, who is 37 now and didn't complete two of his three overseas tours either through injury or lack of batting capability. Even though he overcame a stiff neck to score a fighting fifty that helped take India to safety in Kanpur, his absence behind the wicket opened the door for a younger contender, KS Bharat, who was impressive with his keeping, taking effecting three extremely difficult dismissals on a pitch with up-and-down bounce.
It will not be unreasonable to look at the future now and slot Bharat in as the back-up to Pant. If Saha is fit and ready come Mumbai, that will be another happy headache for the team management.