On backfoot, right from start

K L Rahul

“You just have to keep backing them,” said Virat Kohli, more in exasperation than with any real conviction, when asked about Indian openers’ prolonged lean patch following their crushing 146-run defeat in the second Test in Perth.

An opener’s job is perhaps the most difficult of batting positions in Test cricket, especially if you are in countries like Australia, South Africa and England. The bowlers will be fresh, the ball will be hard and new, the pitches will be spicy and you are cordoned off by almost the entire opposition team in close range.

It’s as if a pack of screaming hyenas are hunting a hapless prey. It’s the loneliest job in cricket. And if you overcome that challenge, you are considered a hero because you are not just batting for yourself but for the entire batting line-up.

Your job is to take care of the first hour or two; see off the new ball, wear the bowlers down and make sure things are less difficult for those coming after you. India currently have two openers that can barely last a few balls, forget overs.

In one innings out of the four in the ongoing series against Australia, both K L Rahul and M Vijay have been dismissed with the total reading less than 10 and on one occasion both have been dismissed by the time India reached 15. On one instance, in the second innings of the second Test, M Vijay batted with three batsmen during his 67-ball stay while Rahul has been involved in just one fifty partnership. This was in the second innings of the first Test which India went on to win.

India have played 13 Tests this year of which they have won six and lost seven. Out of six wins, though, three have come against Windies (2) and Afghanistan (1) at home. They have one win each against South Africa, England and Australia spread over 10 Tests. While India were expected to steamroll Windies and Afghanistan, there is a pattern to six of the seven losses against the other three nations in difficult conditions.

Be it Nottingham or Adelaide, where India won, the openers have made decent contributions. In the Trent Bridge Test, Shikhar Dhawan and Rahul shared 60-run stands in both innings and the later batsmen cashed in on it as India registered a win. In a low-scoring affair at the Adelaide Oval, Rahul and Vijay put on 63 runs, and India went on to win the match. The only instance of them losing a match despite a fifty partnership for the opening wicket was the Birmingham Test in which Vijay and Dhawan raised an even 50.   

The two out-of-sorts openers, Ajinkya Rahane’s blow-hot and blow-cold form, an unsettled sixth-batsman, Rishabh Pant’s inability to play in any other way than swing his bat at everything, and a long tail have ensured that the Indian batting is standing on virtually two legs – Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. While they got away with it in Adelaide, they couldn’t escape the reality in Perth.

Given a choice, India would bench both struggling openers but so precarious is their situation that they may still have to stick with one of these batsmen. Prithvi Shaw’s replacement Mayank Agarwal isn’t a shoo-in for the injured Mumbai batsman but whoever is the other opener, India can ill-afford to play both Rahul and Vijay. Who do you pick in that situation then? Vijay, who is pushing 35, or the 26-year-old Rahul who clearly is your future? If it’s the second criterion, then Rahul should be an automatic choice but given his mode of dismissals that reflect both his technical shortcoming and lack of confidence, Vijay may look the better option. One more failure, and it could be all over for Vijay but what it will do to Rahul’s confidence should he pick up another set of low scores? It’s a tight-rope walk for the team management which is already under fire for repeatedly picking the wrong personnel.

The batsmen’s failures also raise a question mark over the role of assistant coach Sanjay Bangar, who essentially is the batting coach. It’s all fine for Bangar to come and say, ‘Rahul is finding a new way to get out’ but what has he done to fix the problem? The right-hander has been either bowled or dismissed lbw in 10 of his last 12 innings, and surely there’s some technical glitch that the coach hasn’t figured out or sorted out.

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On backfoot, right from start

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