Shaw’s Ton Proves India Can Indeed Benefit from Moving on
In March 2013, a seemingly innocuous, yet head-scratching change came over in Indian cricket. India were still hung over Virender Sehwag's loss and the elevation of Shikhar Dhawan as a Test player perhaps came on the back of this. Dhawan, much to India's relief, slammed a clueless Aussie bowling attack to all corners of Mohali in a scintillating debut where he racked up 187 in 174 balls.
What Dhawan's debut and Murali Vijay's solidarity at one end resulted in was a five-year long stretch where domestic openers found it near impossible to break into the Indian side despite Dhawan's constant struggles away from home. Vijay and Dhawan played in 44 and 34 Tests respectively, a massive number considering that India played 58 Tests in this period.
The only other regular opener to get consistent chances was KL Rahul who played in 27 Tests in this time frame. Besides the three, just four openers played for India in Tests (of which Cheteshwar Pujara and Parthiv Patel were used as stop-gap options). Gautam Gambhir and Abhinav Mukund were indeed the only ones to even come close to pushing Dhawan, Vijay and Rahul.
Thus, when India dropped Dhawan and Vijay for the home series against West Indies, it was indeed a huge change. To top that, the man who replaced Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw, emulated the belligerent southpaw with a flashy, jaw-dropping hundred on debut at Rajkot on Thursday. While Mayank Agarwal, the other opener in the squad, was forced to sit out, Shaw made most of his rare opportunity to slam a hundred that should ideally put him in the plane for Australia.
Shaw's hundred is a massive one for India in two respects – one, it breaks the kind of monopoly that the Vijay-Dhawan pair enjoyed and two, it shows that India can benefit from moving on from tried and tested options.
The core of this Indian team is built on some exceptional batsmen who have racked up runs at will in familiar conditions back home. With series losses in England, and South Africa jolting the Kohli-Shastri management's win-loss record, it was inevitable that they needed to instill faith in a new crop of players.
Shaw's inclusion came on the back of this wave of change. The reluctance to move past some senior players have in the past affected Indian cricket but today when the country is budding with IPL-groomed players and Rahul Dravid-coached youngsters, the margin for error for some of these seniors have gotten minimal.
Dhawan or Vijay can shove their CVs in the face of the public but it wouldn't matter in front of the sheer talent of Shaw or the mountain of runs Mayank Agarwal has racked up in Ranji Trophy. Such is the competition for places in the side that it is indeed a wonder that several in the middle-order came off unscathed from the England series and made it to the squad for West Indies.
Questions on the middle-order can wait, though, with KL Rahul – the other opener who had scratched around for quite a while in England before his limited-over instincts gifted him a hundred in a dead rubber – falling for a duck in the first over at Rajkot. It would ideally not matter given that Rahul had a century against an attack comprising James Anderson and Stuart Broad a Test before.
But as discussed earlier, the margin of error in this Indian Test team is minimal. Rahul, for one, has showcased a vulnerability with deliveries coming into him. In all of his last eight innings in Test cricket, Rahul has been either bowled or LBW a definite giveaway to his woes in and around the stumps.
The trend began as early as Lord's (second Test of the England tour) when Rahul was undone by Anderson's in-swinger in the second innings. Woakes trapped him in front at Nottingham in the first go and Stokes cleaned him up in the second. Broad, Curran and Adil Rashid all had their fair share of success against Rahul with balls aimed at the stumps. That all of them except Rashid were seamers gives you a clear idea of where Rahul is susceptible.
At Rajkot, it took Gabriel just five balls to work over the opener. The West Indian seamer used his natural angle to bring one back into Rahul and trap him in front. That he further wasted a review does not help Rahul's case particularly with Mayank Agarwal and the weight of 1,160 runs breathing down his neck.
This is a transitional phase for team India and changes, if any, could be implemented as soon as the second Test against the Windies. With Shaw hitting the right notes, and India clearly witnessing the benefits of moving on, no one is any longer an automatic choice, at least at the top of the order.
(Rohit Sankar is a freelance cricket writer. He can be reached at @imRohit_SN)