India grapple with transition question during the England series | Crickit
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Rohit Sharma's India grapple with transition question during England Test series

By, Hyderabad
Jan 24, 2024 07:34 PM IST

With no Kohli for the first two Tests, focus is on a batting unit that is largely inexperienced in facing an international bowling attack on home turners

On England's last Test tour of India in 2021, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane constituted the middle-order that took them on. With Pujara and Rahane eased out and Kohli unavailable for the first two Tests, India suddenly find themselves grappling with the transition question. Kohli has played 113 Tests, Pujara 103 and Rahane 85. It's an issue Indian cricket's decision-makers have feared for some time now -- how it will be for India after their long-time No.4?

India's Axar Patel, KS Bharat, Yashasvi Jaiswal and Mukesh Kumar during a practice session (PTI)
India's Axar Patel, KS Bharat, Yashasvi Jaiswal and Mukesh Kumar during a practice session (PTI)

It happened once, when Kohli missed three Tests in Australia in 2020 with the team 0-1 down after being skittled for 36. India then could fall back on Rahane and Pujara. The two shouldered the task of guiding the young players, scripting a win against all odds. This time, even if one of them is recalled as Kohli's replacement, it will be temporary.

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The lack of experience in the batting line-up sticks out as India go into the first Test starting here on Thursday. Skipper Rohit Sharma is India’s most seasoned batter with 54 Tests, but at 36 he is also looking at maximum the current World Test Championship cycle. KL Rahul, 31, is likely to bat at Kohli’s spot in the first Test starting on Thursday, but after 49 Tests he averages a modest 33.60. For a smooth transition, it puts the focus on Shubman Gill, Yashasvi Jaiswal and Shreyas Iyer.

Gill, 24, has played 20 Tests. He is seen as the long-term heir to Kohli's spot as the batting lynchpin but hasn't lived up to the promise he showed in Australia in his debut series (2020-21). His overall average is 30.59. Against England he averages 17.50 in five Tests, four of them at home. Yashasvi Jaiswal has played four Tests, and none at home. Both have played domestic first-class cricket but conditions in the Tests will be far more challenging.

The 29-year-old Iyer has played 12 Tests, seven at home. He did well against New Zealand (50.50 avg) and Sri Lanka (62), but struggled against the world class Australian bowling last year. In four innings, his top score was 26 for an average of 10.50. He has the temperament though, having produced match-winning innings under pressure in Bangladesh in the 2022-23 series.

The first two Tests will indicate how things will be post-Kohli. Coach Rahul Dravid said it will be a big opportunity for someone else to step up.

“Any team will miss the quality of a player like Virat. He has been phenomenal, his record speaks for itself. It just presents an opportunity to somebody else to step up and put in some performances, show what they have got,” he said at the pre-series press conference.

Dravid said starting this week, the next 18 months presents the players a perfect chance to establish their credentials.

"There are some good, young, exciting guys there. I won't call them all youngsters, but even people like Iyer who haven’t probably played a lot of Test cricket have been in and around the group a lot. So yeah, we think they're ready. It's a good opportunity for them over the course of the next five games to set some good markers, set some good standards.

"There is a lot of Test cricket for us over the next 12 to 18 months. We've got five Tests here, and more in India before Australia and then England again. It presents a really good opportunity for some of these players, having had some experience and taste of international cricket, to take the next few steps. Even if they haven’t played in India per se, there's a lot of other exposure that they have got at various levels in these kinds of conditions. So, I don't think it should be much of an issue.”

There’s extra scrutiny on Gill. He has been in great touch in the white-ball format but hasn't translated it in Tests. Since moving down to No.3 in the West Indies, he has only managed 103 runs in six innings.

“Gill is a fine player. Starting out the journey as a cricketer, sometimes we forget that it takes a little bit of time at times. Some guys have success instantly. Actually, he is one of those guys who has done really well in his early days, especially in Australia,” Dravid said.

He said Gill's average must be seen in the context of the team playing most of the recent games in challenging batting conditions, be it turning tracks or seam-friendly.

“To be fair, to him and a lot of the other guys coming through, they have played on pretty challenging wickets, whether in India or overseas. It's been some challenging matches over the last two, three years. It's quite hard at times for some of these guys, but he's doing all the right things. He's working really hard. He is putting in the time, putting in the effort. In the last season he has got a couple of nice hundreds for us, one in Bangladesh, and one in Ahmedabad against Australia. I think he is on the right track. Just sort of hoping that in the course of this series, he has some big performances.”

India have concerns over the crucial wicketkeeper-batter's spot as well.

Dravid announced that KL Rahul, who kept wicket in the two Tests in South Africa, won't keep and that the team will pick a specialist 'keeper between KS Bharat and the uncapped Dhruv Jurel. Bharat, 30, has played five Tests while Jurel, 23, is a greenhorn with only 15 first-class games under his belt. Bharat looks the favourite but will be under pressure after a below-par showing in the last home series against Australia.

India had a minor injury scare at the nets session on Tuesday afternoon after Iyer and Rahul took blows while batting. Rahul continued to bat while Iyer resumed after applying ice on the forearm for some time.

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