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13 Aug 2021
What is common between Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane? Or, to be specific, what has been common between the trio that forms the engine room of the Indian Test side since the last year?
In the context of the ongoing Test at Lord’s, they can be connected to each other by the mode of their dismissals as James Anderson and Ollie Robinson sent them packing in similar manners.
First, Pujara was tempted to poke at an away going delivery from Anderson, followed by a needless forward defence by Kohli on an innocuous delivery from Robinson, and then Rahane offered Joe Root catching practice at first slip by putting bat to a ball he should have let it go.
The second failure of the trio in as many Tests of the series ignited the point about Pujara and Rahane’s future in the Indian Test side. Kohli’s critics saw this as an opportunity to point out that the Indian skipper had not had any great time with the bat in the period when the batsmen batting either side of him in the order were struggling.
Hence, they say that Kohli does not get the flak on the same level as Rahane and Pujara while their numbers are pretty similar in the last couple of years. They also say that Kohli can’t put a question mark on the other two since his own bat has been silent for some time now.
On the face of it, the argument does appear valid as Kohli has the least average among the three batsmen at 24.18 from the last 10 matches played since 2020. Rahane and Pujara have scored their runs with an average of 25.76 and 25.09 respectively in the same time period.
The skipper has also played three Tests less than the other two as he had returned home from Australia after one Test but he has just 387 runs to his name from 16 innings compared to Pujara’s 552 and Rahane’s 541 runs.
These numbers validate the point that Kohli’s critics are arguing. Kohli has not been the better of the other two in the middle order but it’s them who are facing the heat after another failure in the first innings at Lord’s.
But, does it sound unfair on them? Or it would be unfair for Kohli to be hyphenated with Pujara and Rahane’s problems with the bat?
There are certain factors to be taken into consideration before jumping to a conclusion.
While the number suggest that Kohli too has been struggling at the same level as Pujara and Rahane, it would grossly unfair to put him on the same pedestal with his vice-captain and India’s number three.
Kohli’s dip in form is a recent phenomenon and it started on the tour of New Zealand when he was done in by the prodigious seam movement by Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson. But, for Rahane and Pujara, runs were hard to come by even before that tour in March 2020.
If the time period of comparison gets stretched to one or two years preceding the tour of New Zealand, it would be aptly clear how Kohli has been leaps and bounds different from the other two.
Let’s go back to the tour of South Africa in 2017-18 to expand the horizon of comparison.
At the start of the series, the team management could not trust Rahane to break the horror run of form he was having in the home series against Sri Lanka and dropped him from the first two Tests. The move was controversial as he was replaced by Rohit Sharma, who was yet to establish his credentials as a Test batsman, but that his numbers compelled the team management to drop him from the first two Tests is a story in itself.
Pujara too struggled to cope up with the pressure of facing the trio of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Vernon Philander. He could not muster more than one fifty across the three-match series and was also run out on two occasions that show nothing but fidgety at the crease.
Rahane came back strong in the final Test on a tough Wanderers pitch with valuable contributions.
However, Kohli was the lone man standing with the bat for India in the series. He had amassed 286 runs from six innings at an average of 47.6 runs per innings.
Move forward to the last tour of England, and it was pitted to be Kohli’s litmus Test after a horrible series in 2014 against James Anderson. Now, the story of Rahane was repeated with Pujara at the start of the series as he was dropped from the first Test based on his poor form leading up to the series.
He was brought back on a greenish Lord’s pitch and instead of asking the bowlers to earn his wicket, he gifted his wicket by run out to prove chaos in his mind. The case for Rahane was similar as he was struggling with the angle of Ben Stokes and the swing of Anderson.
Both of them got back to some form in the Tests after the second one, but could not even come closer to the remarkable run tally of Virat Kohli, who buried the ghosts of the 2014 series with hundred after hundred.
The variety of success that Virat Kohli has had with the bat across the world and the inconsistency of both Rahane and Pujara over the last three to four years establishes that the Indian skipper has earned a unique place in the team.
However, there are other factors as well that determine the fallacy of hyphenating Kohli’s failures with that of Rahane and Pujara.
While all three of them have been champion batsmen for India over the last many years, Virat Kohli’s supremacy is undisputed for the fact that the period of his domination is always longer than the other two.
Kohli was in good form on the tour of South Africa and England and he made the best use of it by following one big score with another. On the contrary, except for the series against Australia in 2019 where Pujara scored three centuries, both of them have struggled to own a series with the bat. Rahane’s numbers in the aftermath of that century at the MCG is appalling and so is Pujara’s numbers in the aftermath of a relatively good series in terms of impact against Australia..
The duo has always been in search of good form overseas and although they have been successful to produce match-winning ones such as Rahane’s at the MCG, it remains one after a long period of time and scattered between many low scores that put them under enormous pressure.
These arguments can be well settled by absolute numbers. However, there are certain facets of the game that can’t be considered in absolute terms and the perspectives of individual performances is needed.
Both Pujara and Rahane have been seriously nervous starters in the last four years. Both of them bat like fish taken out of deep water at the start of the innings and offer plenty of opportunities to the opposition team to get them out. Those gifts also come in the form of runouts of themselves or their teammates at the other end.
Also, whenever they are out of nick, they go horribly out of their synchronisations. They appear to be messed up in their heads and technique. Let’s take the ongoing Test at Lord’s as an example.
Pujara has been unlucky to get more unplayable balls than others and hence the team management made him realise to go for runs before that inevitable ball arrives. He has shown good ‘intent’ in this series but was guilty of poking a delivery so far away from his off stump. Anderson should be credited for luring him into playing by delivering the ball from wide of the stumps, but Puajra, a veteran of 91 Tests should have been more vigilant outside off stump.
Rahane too batted with an extremely unsettled mind in the last hour of the first day. He was guilty of going after a very wide delivery from Anderson on the very last ball of the day which establishes nothing but his nervousness at the crease and subsequent eagerness to feel the ball on his bat. The eagerness cost him his wicket early on the second day.
Virat Kohli too was out in a similar way—playing a ball off Robinson so far away from his off stump which could have been left easily. However, he had in him to fight it out and score runs even when chips were down and he was not getting shots through the gap. Kohli appeared to be struggling with both timing and placement but he was not fidgety and edgy like Rahane and Pujara.
While it’s a fact that Kohli has been struggling with the bat in the recent past along with Pujara and Rahane, his standing in the same bracket with Rahane and Pujara is nothing but narrative devoid of absolute facts.
Kohli has his issues around the off-stump as his hip is once again getting opened up while playing outswingers, but it is not insurmountable and can be addressed in the nets. On the contrary, Pujara and Rahane’s technical flaws are compounded by their lack of confidence due to the drying up of runs, which again is a sign of flawed technique.
It is unlikely that both Pujara and Rahane will not get a longer rope in the series as the team management will be reluctant to induce as big a change of moving on from two of their best batsmen in the last many years in mid of a big and long tour. However, the Kohli- Shastri duo has been known to take ruthless calls and if Ashwin’s credentials can be overlooked based on conditions and team combination, the day is not far that Pujara and Rahane’s glorious past with the team will be also be settled once for all.