As far as the Second Test was concerned, the end was there in the beginning. The defining pair of the match was the first one to the take to the field, Marcus Harris and Aaron Finch defying their inexperience at Test level and making a decisive contribution of 112 runs with their opening partnership. On a lively Perth wicket, India never truly recovered from falling behind in that first session; the bowlers may have got the glory, but Australia’s openers deserve significant credit.
Which is something that cannot be said for India’s openers. Lauded before the series as part of this famed batting line-up, they have failed comprehensively amidst, failures only partially obscured by the heroics of the men below them. The performance of KL Rahul and Murali Vijay has been substantially below what India have needed.
Yet realistically, did anyone expect differently? For a visiting side with the finest middle-order in the world, India’s opening pair is a vast gaping weakness. In 2018, only West Indian and Bangladeshi openers average less than India’s. That is not good enough, and something needs to change.
Make no excuses – India have to win this series. If they end 2018 without an away series victory, with this group of players, at this age, with their captain in this form, there is a strong argument that it’s the biggest missed opportunity for a generation. For any team.
So the selectors – and other decision-makers – need to step up, and take a bold decision. Not to pick a youngster, an easy decision disguised as a brave one. To strengthen their weakness, they need to break-up their greatest strength.
Cheteshwar Pujara needs to open the batting.
On the simplest of levels, Pujara averages 116 as a Test opener. That’s a rather basic fact, but it’s a persuasive one. But the real guts of the argument for promoting India’s stalwart No.3 come in the detail. No.3 batsmen come in different guises, from the fluent counter-attack who prefers to launch off the shoulders of the giants ahead of him, to the dogged opener forced from his natural home. Pujara may have established his marvellous reputation at No.3, but he is a classic case of the latter. Pujara is not a player you fear getting exposed against the new ball, and for good reason – his record against the new ball is extremely good. He averages 55.08 in the first 20 overs of Test innings; his dismissal rate in this period is 126.3. It’s a quirky image, but it does rather pleasingly suggest that if he faced every single delivery in the first 20 overs of the innings, more often that not he would remain unbeaten. Probably not best to try and test that theory, but it demonstrates his excellence.
What’s more, it’s a record which compares very favourably to India’s current opening batsmen.
Of course, this could be skewed by the fact that Pujara has often been arriving at the crease slightly later. Those first few overs are the real white-hot danger period for batsmen, when bowlers have zero fatigue, full of optimism. Yet Pujara’s record in those first few overs stands up yet again.
What’s more, Pujara appears to relish coming in right at the start of the innings. When arriving at the crease in Overs 10-20, he averages 47.30; when he arrives in those first 10 overs, he averages 49.90. That record soars when he arrives after the 20th over (averaging 55.7), but that hasn’t been happening an awful lot of late. Get him in early, and watch him control the situation.
On top of this, we can look beyond Pujara’s records just in the period of the new ball; we can look at their record in the specific conditions created by the new ball. So far in this series, the first 10 overs of the innings has seen Australia average 0.75° of swing, and 0.68° of seam. That is the challenge that needs to be met right now, so let’s examine India’s batting records against those sorts of deliveries. Outside of Asia, against balls swinging that much or more, Pujara has emphatically the best record of the three potential openers.
Equally, when we look at their records against balls seaming more than 0.68°, we can see that again Pujara is the standout, albeit by a slimmer margin. Without question, Pujara is the finest of these three players at negotiating lateral movement, regardless of whether that movement is coming off the pitch or through the air.
Promoting Pujara to the opening spot is clearly beneficial, but it does necessitate change. One of the openers needs to stand aside, and quite frankly right now, you could justify dropping either of them. Neither have convinced for long stretches in 2018. However, for plenty of reasons, Rahul is the right man to make way.
Four years ago, Rahul announced himself to the world. Swaggering, handsome, and with a double-shot of genius in his drink, India appeared had unearthed a superstar, a turbo-charged Laxman to sit at the top of the order for the upcoming decade. Yet in reality, that hasn’t been the case. Whilst he has intermittently produced wonderful innings (this summer’s innings at The Oval one of the finest at that storied and historic ground). It’s a sad truth, but it’s a clear one.
He has shown obvious, frustrating technical issues. Outside of Asia, Rahul has struggled significantly against pace. That is what’s holding him back.
What’s more, it’s a very clear aspect of pace bowling which vexes him. Outside of Asia, he averages 35.14 against full balls, 12.09 against good length balls, and 146 against short balls. Pitch it up, and he’s in trouble; that is not what you want from a Test match opener. However, in the middle-order, when bowlers have lost a little zip and the ball is older, Rahul may find himself facing less of those pitched up deliveries. He may find that bowlers are less eager to throw him full deliveries when the ball is 60 overs old, rather than brand spanking new. Demoting him could free him up to play expressively and with reduced risk.
The thing is, you can’t just throw away a player of Rahul’s talent. As much as India do have a crop of world-class batsmen coming through, now is not the time to blood the kids, in the biggest Test series of the year, away from home, against a voracious Australian attack. Shubman Gill and his contemporaries will have their time, but it’s not right now. Yet Rahul is too talented to fall out of this team, and this is where selectors need to use their skill and discretion, to recognise that just because someone fails in one context, they won’t necessarily fail in another.
By moving Rahul down the order, to either No.5 or No.6, you emphasise his strengths and, to an extent, negate his weaknesses. He is an excellent player of spin, and a combination of Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, and Rahul would be a great counter to Nathan Lyon. They all have solid records against spin and could allow the stronger players of pace to blunt Australia’s trio of firebrands. This move would have the dual benefit of strengthening the top order whilst not significantly weakening the middle order. It’s the sensible option. Will India’s selectors take it?
Of course, the elephant in the room is the knock-on effect this could have on India’s No.4. Virat Kohli looked at his imperious best at Perth, and any disruption to his performance could be disastrous for India’s chances in this series. Instinctively, people will be cautiously warning against promoting Kohli to No.3, given that he averages 19.14 in the six innings he has played in that position. But Kohli is a remarkable player, more than capable of meeting the challenge of sliding up the order. For that table against the swing, Kohli’s figures are an average of 48.95 and 85 balls-per-dismissal. He is capable of taking on this new role, if Pujara does vacate his spot.
India are such a vibrant team. They have all bases covered, and covered with a vibrancy and flair that every team in the world should be jealous of. They have all the resources they need to win this series, they just need to reshuffle. Neutralise Australia’s new ball bowling, get Kohli in earlier, and unleash Rahul on a tired attack – these are tweaks, but they could be vital ones.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.