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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

India vs West Indies: Ajinkya Rahane, R Ashwin keep fingers crossed for first Test spots

As per reports from the West Indies, Ajinkya Rahane’s position is vulnerable for the first Test. But every time the team has left him out, it has immediately looked like a mistake

cricket Updated: Aug 21, 2019 08:55 IST
India's Ajinkya Rahane during a practice session
India's Ajinkya Rahane during a practice session(PTI)
         

It could well be that the new India team batting coach, interviews for which are underway, is decided on how they answer questions on Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane. On talent and potential, the Mumbai duo is as good as Virat Kohli, then what has prevented them from becoming as good in all formats, and how will the candidate for batting coach work on the missing link in their game?

The two batsmen are again in focus ahead of the opening Test against West Indies starting in Antigua on Thursday. Rahane is now a Test specialist, but not an automatic choice in the eleven and is locked in a fight for the middle-order spot with Sharma and Hanuma Vihari.

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As India gear up to begin their World Test Championship campaign at North Sound, who to leave out is the dilemma of the think-tank. Apart from the middle-order, it will also have to make a tough call in the spin department, to choose between R Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav. The others are more or less automatic choices.

Vihari has yet to produce a career-defining innings, but he does enough to prove his value to the team. In the tour opener too, he came up with typically gritty efforts of 37 not out and 64. In the India A tour as preparation for the main series, he clicked in the last game of the series, scoring a half-century and century. In four Tests, his highest score is 56, made on debut at the Oval, and he averages 23.85 in seven innings.

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As per reports from the West Indies, Rahane’s position is vulnerable. But every time the team has left him out, it has immediately looked like a mistake. In South Africa, he was benched and India lost both the Tests; Rahane came in and played a match-changing knock to lift India to a win in the final Test. India has not dropped him since.

Rahane’s experience of 56 Tests, averaging 40, is a factor. He has nine Test centuries, and more importantly, has got hundreds in tough away Tests, including Australia and England. But they didn’t come on the last tour of Australia, where he threw away good starts, scoring 13, 70, 51, 30, 34, 1 and 18. It’s been over two years and 17 Tests since he scored a century. He hasn’t got many runs in first-class cricket either, but that doesn’t have much relevance for a player who has played more than fifty Tests.

Sharma’s reputation has been built on his one-day exploits. It only grew at the World Cup. How to ignore a batsman with five hundreds at the World Cup? However, for all his talent, he has had a stop-start Test career. In his last two Tests, in Australia, he got 37, 1, 63 not out and 5. He has pressed his case with a fluent half-century in the warm-up game.

Kohli has a tight call to make. It could well depend on the combination he chooses to play. If he goes in with four bowlers, he would want the cushion of the part-time off-spin of Vihari.

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The top four are sorted with openers Mayank Agarwal, who debuted with an impressive 76 and 42 in Melbourne, and KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara at No 3 and Kohli at 4.

ASHWIN V YADAV

In the bowling department, the pace attack picks itself with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami in the lead and Ishant Sharma as back-up. Umesh Yadav is back in rhythm but is likely to cool his heels. Among the spinners, at the end of the Australia series, Kuldeep Yadav had taken over the mantle of India’s lead spinner from Ashwin. Coach Ravi Shastri had declared him the spearhead of the team’s spin attack after his five-wicket haul in Sydney. Ashwin broke down after the first Test in Australia, like he did in the fourth Test in England and missed the final game.

In these two Tests, the chinaman bowler will compete with Ashwin for the tag of lead spinner. After the Australia tour, Ashwin took loads of wickets playing for English County Nottinghamshire. Going by cues in the warm-up game, Kuldeep Yadav seems to be the front-runner after taking three wickets.

PANT HAS THE EDGE

Though Wriddhiman Saha is way senior, Rishabh Pant will be the first choice keeper, owing to his batting ability. Saha was sidelined due to injury, and chief selector MSK Prasad had said any player out due to injury automatically gets his place back when fit. But whether the team management, known to be ruthless when it comes to assessing potential and performance, adopts that line in picking the playing eleven, remains to be seen. Pant is a more dynamic batsman while Saha is a safer keeper. The Delhi player has the edge after swashbuckling hundreds in England and Australia. Kohli doesn’t have much patience with his keeping though, and with Saha there, Pant will be under pressure to do a tidy job with the keeping gloves. If he flounders behind the stumps in the first Test, Saha should be back in the mix.

The competition for places is intense, but Umesh Yadav said it is bringing the best out of them. “We’re playing so many Tests, we need good bench strength. We know we will all get our chance because there’s so much cricket,” he said after the drawn tour game against West Indies A in Coolidge where he took 3/19 in the first innings. “The competition is good, and it’s good for us. That’s the way we think. We keep trying to get better, and that helps the team too. It’s very important. If there is healthy competition, it’s exciting. One needs to take on the challenge and focus on the bowling.”

Since the start of 2018, he has only played five of India’s 15 Tests. The speedster explained how he rectified issues in his bowling, having plunged into domestic cricket and then IPL on his return from Australia.

“I went to Vidarbha Cricket Academy and worked with coach Subrata Banerjee. There were issues of length; it happens to a lot of fast bowlers, when you are playing a lot continuously, you’re unable to settle into a specific line and length,” he said.

“You need off-time because it is only then you can re-shape your mindset. There are times when everything is going good but your mind is distracted thinking things are not going the way you want them to. To get away and think, that mind space is important. I went home, spoke to my coach, cleared my thoughts and got clarity.”

First Published: Aug 21, 2019 08:51 IST