#IndvsSA: How secure are India's batsmen?
And how far will the management go to accommodate Rohit Sharma?
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After Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma is possibly the most secure Indian batsman in the shortened format. And even though his spot in the Test team isn't secure, it's evident, both Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli would love to see him book his seat in the longer format. Rohit returns home after his Test debut nearly two years ago, during Tendulkar's farewell series.
Since those twin hundreds in consecutive innings, it's been 12 Tests without any; though he has managed four fifties. However, since his Test debut, Rohit has scored 264, 138, 137, 150 in One Day International matches (ODIs); not to forget, a 209 just a few days before his debut. And therein lies the hangup with Rohit.
What if? Appears both Shastri and Kohli do not want to die wondering, they'd rather pick Rohit in a Test in the hope of something magical than stick it out with one of the more plebeian players. Even if India go in with five bowlers and five batsmen plus the wicketkeeper, this first Test in Mohali may only be a one off sans Sharma.
Batsmen on notice are Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara. If one or both the openers have a horror Test, Pujara could open again. Much like Rohit, Dhawan too has been in and out of the Test XI. Not unlike Rohit, Dhawan too is far more secure of his ODI spot. Dhawan also made his Test debut in 2013, and like Rohit, scored a hundred on debut; incidentally, in Mohali. Even though he made two back-to-back hundreds, against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka earlier this year, his limited overs' form leading into this series has been hit and miss. If one of the reasons for picking Rohit for Tests has been his fast scoring, then those in-charge should take a look at Dhawan's strike rate - it's 12 more than Rohit's at 64. He has four Test centuries to Rohit's two, his average is 44.5 to Rohit's 38. Dhawan has played 15 to Rohit's 14 Tests.
Dhawan is the only left handed batsman in the team, and could be a vital counter to Imran Tahir's leg spin. In spite of all this, I suspect, Shikhar Dhawan goes if he fails to make a big score in the first two Tests.
Next, the spotlight is on Murali Vijay, possibly India's batting mainstay over the last two years, before Ajinkya Rahane rocked on to the scene. However, what goes against Vijay is, much like Pujara, he's a Test specialist - often having to cope with those gaps in public and selection memory that are occupied by one-day heroics of their far more illustrious peers. An injured Vijay missed two Tests against Sri Lanka; also opening in the series, KL Rahul scored 108, and Pujara 145*. Much as Vijay's leaving of the ball was acclaimed overseas, it could come back to bite him - amongst the batsmen, his is the lowest strike rate. In Kohli's India, is leaving the ball seen as a scoring opportunity lost?
Going by Kohli's edges to slips, you never know. A surplus of opening options, and an impatience with certain players could cost Vijay a spot if he fails to score big - occupying the crease for hours and taking the shine off the new ball may not be enough anymore. If anything, a change in Vijay's approach and an attempt to score early could do the batting in quite badly.
And what about Pujara? Forgotten, and back only because the two regular openers were injured, he batted the day and batted through the innings for his 145 not out. In case of injury or loss of form to the openers, he's the first choice replacement. Till then at three for the first Test at least. What followed the century was a duck in the second innings - is very much on notice, and will have to do a lot more at three (or opening) if he has to retain his place in the team. In spite of the highest batting average in the team @49.28 (also his strike rate), is on far shakier ground than the openers. Still, the inability of Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma to claim the number three spot makes him less vulnerable. Could turn out to be a definitive series in his career if he scores heavily (and Kohli doesn't) - almost a reverse of the series Down Under. Don't be too surprised to hear calls for Pujara's captaincy then; stranger things have happened in Indian cricket. It's 2015, N Srinivasan and Sundar Raman are well nigh history.
When he's good at five, they put him at three. Meet Ajinkya Rahane. To make it more fun, he even scored a hundred at three. What next, will they make him open if they run out of options there? Where Rahane will bat, will be decided by who India opens with, and how badly they want Rohit in the mix. If Pujara opens, then Rahane's in at three. And even though Rahane is now considered an India regular, it wasn't too long back that MS Dhoni omitted him from his one-day eleven. Often it appears Rahane scores far more quickly in Tests than he does in ODIs, doesn't want to be the next VVS Laxman in that regard.
And what about the other opener, KL Rahul - scored in the warm up against the South Africans; in his five Tests so far, he's already batted at 1, 2, 3 and 6, scoring two centuries and plenty of twos too.
It's a four Test series, against a far fitter side, expect changes to happen when you least expect them to.