The transition subplot to a Test tour of South Africa | Cricket - Hindustan Times

The transition subplot to a Test tour of South Africa

Dec 05, 2023 09:28 AM IST

India look for answers to Sharma’s opening partner and the middle-order puzzle

It could last 10 days. But then again, it might not. Twelve defeats (against just four wins) out of 23 Tests, all by at least five wickets or 72 runs, and only six of them stretching into the fifth day, make for a compelling reminder of how daunting touring South Africa has remained in 30 years despite India’s storied advances in England and Australia. Two Tests on this tour but at Cape Town and Centurion where South Africa have been stupendous means the premise too shouldn’t change this time. Yet, India have chosen this tour to ring in a few key, hopefully long-term, changes.

File photo of Rohit Sharma and Yashasvi Jaiswal(AFP)
File photo of Rohit Sharma and Yashasvi Jaiswal(AFP)

No Cheteshwar Pujara, who has the most fifties in South Africa, and no Ajinkya Rahane – at 46.52 he has the best average in South Africa after Virat Kohli—make India look unusually undercooked for an overseas tour for the first time in over a decade. Change, however, seemed inevitable after the 2023 World Test Championship final at the Oval. The sequence of removal too has been unsurprising. Moving on from Pujara, who had last hit a hundred in Australia 2019, was always inevitable but to overlook Rahane, who top-scored with 89 in that final, is probably a sign that approximations and estimations have been finally buried. So, here’s looking at you too, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. Should India reach their third consecutive WTC final in 2025, Sharma will be 38, Kohli 36. Kohli’s endurance is unquestionable. Not Sharma’s though.

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Change takes effect over time and the selectors have probably decided to focus on the middle-order before looking at the top. But the positions are so intricately connected that it begs the question how the transition would play out in the next couple of years. One thing that history has told us is nothing is set in stone. Most of Sharma’s innings came at No. 6 before he finally got to open in 2019. Kohli’s was a shorter transition, making his debut No. 5 before cementing No. 4. If both are meant to hold on to their places for continuity’s sake, it might prompt a shuffle after addressing a few uncomfortable questions.

Logic says Yashasvi Jaiswal should open with Sharma given his rollicking Test initiation in West Indies in July. So does that mean Shubman Gill officially drops to No. 3, where he had batted in the Caribbean, even though he has the better opening average? The return of KL Rahul, who had opened India’s batting with Sharma during the home series against Australia in February, adds a layer of complexity. In the longer run, a technically efficient Rahul and a flamboyant Jaiswal opening makes more sense but that has to wait till Sharma quits the format.

Rahul can’t bat at No. 4 because that is Kohli’s slot. So, either he bats at No.3, which means Gill goes down the order at 5 or 6, or Gill bats at No. 3 and Rahul comes in later. But at No 5 or 6, Gill and Rahul have a combined experience of one Test innings. This is also where Iyer comes in, having played 15 innings—all on flat pitches of the subcontinent and England—at these two positions. Maybe Iyer is the most natural middle-order fit, but trust Marco Jansen, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi or Gerald Coetzee to tirelessly test him with those shorter lengths.

That KS Bharat remains in the larger scheme of things is evident from his elevation to captaincy of the A team that is set to tour South Africa alongside the senior team but there is now zero pretence about how India prefer multi-utility over specialty. Rahul is more of the Pujara template of scoring, but Ishan Kishan is the kind of fallback in the Rishabh Pant mould, one who has the ability to single-handedly negate the conditions with a predictable yet rewarding brand of batting. Kishan may still have to wait on the sidelines but that the wheels are turning is apparent from the tweak in the wicketkeeper-batter pecking order.

Despite some changes, this India team hasn’t struggled of late. But many South Africa Test tours have met with funereal ends. Working on an extension now, Rahul Dravid is no stranger to change, having called for a transition once he had retired after a disastrous Australia tour in 2012. That he is at the same juncture, albeit as a coach, makes this changeover equally intriguing.

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    Somshuvra Laha is a sports journalist with over 11 years' experience writing on cricket, football and other sports. He has covered the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2016 ICC World Twenty20, cricket tours of South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh and the 2010 Commonwealth Games for Hindustan Times.

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