India have announced their playing eleven for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and on paper the team looks better balanced than the sides that won in Adelaide and lost in Perth to be 1-1 in the four-Test series.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Seldom has one seen both the opening batsmen struggling for runs and getting dropped for the third Test of a series. Both Murali Vijay and Lokesh Rahul have invited their omission, getting dismissed in the two Tests they played in strange ways. When you are not in nick you get the best of deliveries and you also tend to worry about your technique.
The Indian team management is so desperate that it is willing to convert a middle-order batsman, Hanuma Vihari, into an opener and give a Test cap to Mayank Agarwal, who joined the squad after Prithvi Shaw went home injured even before the Test series got under way. The change enabled the team to play Raindra Jadeja.
One only hopes the selectors, captain and coach do not make Vihari’s life miserable by pushing him up and down like they did with V.V.S. Laxman before the genial Hyderabadi put his foot down against being a guinea pig. But by then he had big runs in the middle order against the likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. He was pushed to No. 6 with Saurav Ganguly going up the order and he had to nurse the lower-order batsmen to carry the team ahead. He even got hundreds and won Tests batting with the tail.
Cricketers are willing to do anything to find a place in the eleven. When an inconsistent Rohit Sharma realised he had no place at No 6, he offered to open the innings. It may not have made sense for many, but his backers put forward the theory that if he could open in the One-Dayers so successfully he could make necessary adjustments even in Tests.
Mohammad Azharuddin wanted Ganguly to open the innings on his return to the side after the disastrous 1992 tour Down Under since he had been opening in the One-Dayers. But the left-hander was adamant he would not open in Tests.
Like Vihari, Agarwal also bulldozed his way into the team with tons of runs in domestic cricket. He was in the running for a spot for the last two Tests in England, but the selectors preferred the other opener Shaw and the sound Vihari.
Agarwal did not lose heart and kept getting his hundreds in domestic cricket to get into the Test squad against the West Indies, but again could not get into the eleven. He was again ignored when the selectors preferred to go in with the experienced Murali Vijay and Rahul and Shaw, who got a hundred on debut against the West Indies.
Agarwal finally got his due, but not to bat with a regular opener. The reserve wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel opened in Tests, but they could not have risked playing him with Rishabh Pant already there.
It is not easy to open in Tests howsoever a batsman is sound technically. But mentally, it is not easy, even if someone like Rahul Dravid or Cheteshwar Pujara walks out at the fall of an opener in the first over. Dravid and Pujara came in to bat in any number of Tests even before the new ball bowlers could warm up, particularly overseas.
What does Vihari think of opening the innings? It is unfair to force him to go out with Agarwal, who himself has no experience of playing the new ball in a Test match situation, just because he looked technically well suited. There is a mental aspect to it, too.
Ravi Shastri himself opened the innings and got a double hundred in Australia after starting his career as a left-arm spinner and lower-order batsman. He might inspire Vihari just as some others like M.L. Jaisimha, Manoj Prabhakar and Nayan Mongia, who opened to accommodate an extra batsman or a bowler when they were not cut out for the job. Mongia scored his only Test hundred (152) as an opener against Australia at Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi in 1996.
In fact, Jaisimha batted in the top-order for his state, Hyderabad, and opened in Tests. It was thought this was one way of accommodating Jai in the team as it would have been difficult to accommodate him in the middle-order. When asked about the contradiction, his captain Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi quipped that on Indian wickets, even he could open!
Strange things have happened in Indian cricket. On the tour of England in 1967, Tiger Pataudi opened the innings with two wicketkeepers Farokh Engineer and Budhi Kunderan in the Birmingham Test. Kunderan, playing in what turned out to be his last Test, even shared the new ball with V. Subramanya so that all famed four spinners could be played!
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])