Aggression. That was the watchword for team India before this Test series against Sri Lanka began. In between the shocking loss in the first Test at Galle and the comeback win at the P Sara Oval in Colombo, “aggression” changed into a horses-for-courses policy.
At the center of this turn-around was Rohit Sharma. He began this tour with the team management posing immense confidence in his promotion to number three. Phrases like ‘bats long’, ‘300 runs in a day’ and ‘flair at number three’ were thrown around. That 63-run shocker inflicted by Rangana Herath in the first Test helped tone down all the chest thumping, and Ajinkya Rahane was promoted to number three thereafter in the second Test.
Pushing Rohit down to number five again was a very strange move. It can be said that the team management’s confidence was shaken after one defeat. Maybe his promotion to number three was the wrong move in the first place, but one loss is hardly a big-enough sample size. However wrong the move, if Rohit had batted at number three throughout the series it would have reflected well on the clear-thinking – even if too bold – on the management’s part.
Instead, it indicated confusion and favouritism for one player. In accommodating one player, the Indian think-tank – captain, team director, on-tour selectors – were being unfair to Rahane, who had cemented his place at number five through some hard runs scored in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. Most of all, Rahane’s promotion and Rohit’s demotion still meant that Cheteshwar Pujara was sitting on the bench, twiddling thumbs.
How fair was it that Rohit merited another go, that too by chopping and changing the whole batting order, while Pujara waited for one more chance? By some cruel fate, it was only a series of injuries that allowed him a chance in this third Test, and bang, 145* in a team-total of 312 at the SSC in Colombo. The next-best score from the top-order was Rohit’s 26 runs.
It was an immaculate knock from Pujara. He used soft hands against the new ball, waited out two rain breaks, and used the gift of patience against the pacers and his feet against the spinners. On an uncharacteristic, green SSC pitch, he carried his bat through the innings. He batted for 289 balls, and scored at a strike-rate of 50.17. He did everything asked of a number three batsman. Only, he did it as a makeshift opener.
Many would ask, did Pujara do enough to merit a place in the eleven when India face South Africa in their next Test at Mohali in November? That would be the wrong question though.
Instead, it should be asked how is it that Pujara did not make the eleven in the first two Tests at Galle and the P Sara Oval? Ravi Shastri had said in the pre-series press conference that they would pick the best five batsmen in the eleven. How is it, then, that Pujara missed out? Is he not among India’s top-five batsmen at present?
Again, that word favouritism comes into the picture. Let it be said that there was nothing wrong in trying out Rohit at number three for a whole series, irrespective of his success or failure. But the team management panicked after the Galle loss. When questions were asked about the change in batting order, the official line changed to ‘no batsman has a fixed spot in this line-up’.
It is an odd thing to say, because familiarity breeds consistency, and it is an important concept in Test cricket. Also, if nobody’s spot is fixed, why doesn’t Virat Kohli make room and let him bat at number four, since that is Rohit’s favourite batting position by his own admission? Put it simply, all of this is just beating around the bush.
And it sets a dangerous precedent; not only in terms of picking players but also rotating and changing the batting order. Moreover, this Indian batting order in no way resembles the set line-up MS Dhoni had left for the new skipper. In five Tests, the whole face of the Indian batting order has changed. Was there a need to do so? Wasn’t bowling – and taking twenty wickets – the main worry?
That last bit isn’t looking like a problem, as Sri Lanka have been poor in this three-match series, barring those two sessions in Galle. Victory allows this unnecessary confusion in the batting order to look good. At the time of writing (lunch on day three), India look poised for a first series win on Lankan soil in more than two decades, all thanks to Pujara of course. There is a strong irony in that last sentence.