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Who goes out of India's XI when Virat Kohli comes in?

If Shreyas Iyer is to be retained after an excellent debut, a tough call will have to be made for the Mumbai Test

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Everybody knows about Rahul Dravid's second Test as captain. That's when he declared on a certain somebody. Let's talk about his third then. It was also the third Test for a batter who had made his name as in ODIs already. Yuvraj Singh would get to play, and Dravid would be the captain, only when Sourav Ganguly was missing. In his third Test, just before Ganguly was fit again, Yuvraj scored a superb century from 95 for 4 on a green seamer in Lahore. Back then, Dravid didn't have to decide whose place the full-time captain would take without denying the promising youngster, who looked ready to transition from white ball to red ball at the international level.
In his second Test as coach of India, Dravid has to make that call. Or, at least, help make it. Virat Kohli, who gave himself a one-Test break to just get off the treadmill for a week and work on his game, will be back as captain for the Mumbai Test against New Zealand, and he has to decide who makes way for him. Shreyas Iyer rescued India twice with innings of 105 and 65 on debut, making it nigh impossible to leave him out, especially when the other three middle-order batters have a combined average of 27.3 over the last two years.
It leaves Dravid and Kohli a tricky selection to make. These are their options.
Kohli replaces Rahane
If you just look at cold numbers, Ajinkya Rahane, who captained in Kohli's absence, has to go.
Rahane averages 24.39 over his last 16 Tests, including one century in the Boxing Day Test nearly a year ago. With scores of 35 and 4 in the last Test, his career average has now dipped below 40.
At home he averages 35.73, which has come down to 30.08 over the last five years.
It is a fairly large sample size, and it is the easiest switch to make because Kohli will come in and reclaim the No. 4 spot, leaving Iyer at No. 5, where he scored the runs in Kanpur.
This is one of the peculiar things about Test selections, though. Bowlers get rotated depending on the conditions. Why not batters? Part of the reason is that batters have the least say in the runs they get; conditions and bowlers initiate a play, batters react. In that sense, they are not the horses that are changed with courses.
It is a thought, though: Rahane's record at home is not good, so why not play him only in away Tests?
Kohli replaces Pujara
Cheteshwar Pujara has been dropped for much less in the past. He helped save the Melbourne Test in 2014-15 but found himself out of Sydney. He scored a match-winning century on a green seamer in Sri Lanka in 2015, and found himself out in the West Indies after one home series in India without a century.
Now it has been close to three years without a century. That's 23 matches for an average of 28.61. He has played the odd good innings in between, but they have been support acts. He has tired the bowlers down with grit and will, but eventually he has needed an assertive batter with him for those contributions to count.
It is interesting how the experts read it. Pujara's returns have been marginally better, but Rahane has looked better and more organised at the wicket before finding ways to get out. Pujara bats in the more difficult No. 3 position. Both are the same age, 33.
Kohli replaces Agarwal
If this happens, it will seem unfair on the young opener, who has not got a proper run in Test cricket yet.
Mayank Agarwal averages 43.28 after 15 Tests, but he dominates attacks at home: he has double-centuries against South Africa and Bangladesh. On the away leg, he played both the Tests in New Zealand last year, but made way for Rohit Sharma midway in the Australia series and then missed England with injury. It would seem unfair to drop him after just one Test back just to retain two veterans.
As in the unfortunate case of Hanuma Vihari, who has got to play just one Test at home and gets to play away only when the conditions are difficult enough to ask for a sixth batter, selections at Test level are not about what is fair to an individual but what is best for the team. If the team management genuinely believes that Pujara and Rahane can turn it around, and that they are of more value than Agarwal - who will be the back-up opener once Rohit and KL Rahul are back - they could take this call.
Who opens if Agarwal goes out?
Back to when Dravid was the captain in Ganguly's absence…
Ganguly came back, but Yuvraj didn't go out. Nor did Dravid, VVS Laxman or Sachin Tendulkar. It was opener Aakash Chopra who made way. Ganguly announced at the pre-match press conference that either he or Yuvraj would open, but come day one, the job fell on wicketkeeper Parthiv Patel. Wicketkeepers tend to get such deals.
Current wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha's fitness is in doubt; neck pains take longer to go away at 37 than at 27. If Saha doesn't make it, his replacement KS Bharat, who displayed excellent skills behind the wickets as the substitute, will be a decent pick to open: he has opened the innings in 77 of his 123 first-class innings, and scored a triple-century and three other centuries from that position; he has moved down the order over the last couple of years but has the experience of opening.
If Saha is fit, though, such an arrangement will again be unfair on someone who batted for over three hours with a stiff neck to play an innings that, according to coach Dravid, took India to safety when they were still under pressure in Kanpur. It is not about the individual, though. Saha is 37, and he has struggled with the bat away from home. The selectors will be justified if they go with a younger back-up for Rishabh Pant.
In a nutshell...
At the heart of this selection lies an acknowledgement that batting at the Test level is mostly a reaction to the conditions and the bowling. Over the last three years or so, Rahane and Pujara don't have the runs they would have wanted, but it is also true that India have played some deep attacks in tough batting conditions. Yet, it is also true that India have a lot of talent waiting in the wings.
There has to be a reason why first Kohli and Ravi Shastri and now Dravid have backed Pujara and Rahane. Especially Kohli, who was trigger-happy with selection calls in the first half of his captaincy. One thing is sure: neither one of them can feel hard done by if dropped.
If Dravid and Kohli persist with both of them in Mumbai and go to the extent of dropping an opener and asking a keeper to open, it will only tell you how much they value Rahane and Pujara.
But how long will they keep valuing them if the runs don't come?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo