IND vs NZ: Series in balance, selection dilemmas abound

Indifferent form of Rahane and Pujara should have India pondering ahead of the decider
India's skipper Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara during the Day-1 of the 1st Test (ANI)
India's skipper Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara during the Day-1 of the 1st Test (ANI)
Published on Dec 01, 2021 12:49 AM IST
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Barely 30 minutes after India and New Zealand played out a thrilling draw at the Green Park Stadium, head coach Rahul Dravid was fielding questions on the future of Ajinkya Rahane, the stand-in skipper who is yet to lose a match in his six-Test captaincy career. In a parallel universe, a 66.6% win record, not to forget plotting a historic heist in Australia earlier this year, would invite calls for a permanent elevation in ranks. But for Rahane, it is all about mere survival.

Rahane's career has been caught up in a strange spiral since a breakout 2014-15 season that saw him score crucial centuries in England, New Zealand, Australia, and Sri Lanka. Cold numbers they may be, but statistics have their way of telling a tale. His average this year reads 19.57. In his last home series, against England, he averaged 18.66 across six innings. His career average—39.30—is second lowest among the top five that played the Kanpur Test where he scored 35 and 4 in two innings. Since scoring the series-altering century in Melbourne last December, he has gone 22 innings without a fifty.  

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“He is a quality player,” Dravid said. “Hopefully it's just a matter of an innings, a matter of a game where he can turn it around. Certainly, he would like to score more runs. He knows that. And we know that.”

It is obvious for the head coach to bat for his skipper, but as the team gears up for the all-important Test in Mumbai and regular skipper Virat Kohli returns to his No 4 spot, Rahane's position appears more vulnerable. Shreyas Iyer's dream debut that saw him become the first Indian batter to score a hundred and a half century in his maiden Test will make it extremely difficult for the think tank to drop him in the very next match. Iyer, whose first-class strike rate is over 80, showed remarkable adaptability on the track that offered low bounce, and bailed India out after they were reduced to 51/5 in the second innings. The Wankhede pitch is known for its true bounce, and an in-form, fluid strokeplayer such as Iyer may prove to be a game-changer on his home turf.  

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Exactly who he will replace though is another question, for it is not just Rahane who is struggling for runs in the Indian line-up. Cheteshwar Pujara did his fortunes no good with another average outing in Kanpur. Scoring 26 and 22 in two innings, the India No 3 is far from the impregnable foil he was a few years back. His last Test century came in January 2019, and his last 12 innings have yielded only two 50-plus scores. While at the peak of his career, Pujara would be immovable after getting set, in the recent past he has shown a worrying tendency to get out after presumably getting in. In his last 10 innings, Pujara has played 20 balls or more seven times. Only twice has he been able to cross fifty, and we are not even discussing the vexed strike rate just yet.

Then, we have opener Mayank Agarwal who has gone 10 innings without a half century. His last fifty came in the pre-pandemic days of February 2020. Against New Zealand in Kanpur, he was repeatedly beaten outside the off stump by Kylie Jamieson and Tim Southee, eventually getting out to each pacer in both innings. Luckily for Agarwal, India do not have a reserve opener in the squad which means the Karnataka batter may pad up in Mumbai, although a theoretical option of sending the wicketkeeper to open does exist, especially because that would leave a spot to hand a debut to Suryakumar Yadav on his home ground.  

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The rationale of such a shakeup at this stage is debatable. With series on the line, it would be interesting to see whether Kohli goes for wholesale changes. What is indeed certain is Saha is no longer the first-choice wicketkeeper. That honour has gone to Rishabh Pant, and was confirmed in as many words by batting coach Vikram Rathour during the first Test. “As far as Wriddhi is concerned, unfortunately for him, we have an extremely special player Rishabh, who is number one keeper for us and has done extremely well in past few years. That’s the role Wriddhi has at the moment that we need him when Pant is not available," Rathour said.

Saha battled neck strain to hit a crucial unbeaten 61 in the second innings while stitching 60-plus partnerships with Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel. It would be harsh to drop him for the second Test if he is fit and available, although India would do well to groom a second wicketkeeper, considering at 37, Saha may not have too many Test matches left.

India’s bowling combinations look fairly settled. Wankhede's red-soil pitch is known to offer decent turn and bounce to spinners as a Test progresses, which means Kohli may stick to three spinners and two pacers. However, there is a case to try Mohammed Siraj in place of Ishant Sharma, who looked fairly off colour in Kanpur. Barring a few short balls to nightwatchman William Sommerville on Day 5, the experienced pacer could barely trouble a Kiwi batter. Also, with Siraj’s natural lengths more suited to generate conventional and reverse swing, it would not be a bad idea to give him a go. The stage is now beautifully set for the series decider. Not for the first time in his career, Dravid is in a spot of bother. Against possibly the strongest New Zealand team to ever tour India, the onus is now on choosing a team best equipped to win. How he goes about that with Kohli back at the helm would be interesting to watch.


    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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