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Evaluating India’s opening options for England Tests in the absence of Shubman Gill

Evaluating India’s opening options for England Tests in the absence of Shubman Gill

With incumbent Shubman Gill set to miss a chunk of the five-match series against England, team India have been left with a decision to make on the opening front. SportsCafe looks at the six possible candidates in the squad, and evaluates the pros and cons of every individual in contention.

Abhimanyu Easwaran

Natural position in the batting order?

What does his first class record look like?

4401 runs in 64 matches at an average of 43.57

Attacking option or defensive?

Defensive

What does he bring to the table?

Patience, solidity and compactness. An orthodox, technically-correct batsman who religiously adheres to textbook cricket, Easwaran is an opener who belongs to the Murali Vijay breed of top-order batters. An opener with no quirky backlift or trigger movement, Easwaran prides and excels in playing attritional red-ball cricket, and it was this very attribute that earned him success at the Ranji level. Across the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, the right-hander amassed 1,425 runs @ 67.85 to catapult himself into the national picture. Not only could Easwaran serve as the perfect foil for Rohit Sharma’s aggression, he himself, when on form, is a batsman whose defence is impossible to breach. He likes to bat long and spend time at the middle – in the 2018/19 Ranji season, the right-hander faced an average of 131.90 balls per innings, the highest for any batsman who scored at least 500 runs. He also has a pedigree to score daddy hundreds, evident by the fact that, in the same season, he posted three scores of 180 or more, in just 11 innings, with one of them being an unbeaten double.

What’s the argument against his selection?

Simple: though Easwaran boasts an impressive domestic CV, it’s been two years since he’s scored runs. After a stellar 2018/19 season, the right-hander had a horror 2019/20 Ranji season, in which he averaged 17.20 across 10 matches, posting a solitary fifty-plus score in 17 innings. His hideous run also extended in India A colours. Against West Indies (away) in July-August 2019, versus the Dukes, Easwaran averaged just 24.00 in 3 unofficial Tests, again scoring just one fifty in six innings. He also struggled against New Zealand A four months later, posting scores of 8 and 26 in Christchurch against an attack that featured Jacob Duffy and Ajaz Patel. India could pick him based on potential and past records, but the truth is that it’s been two years since Easwaran has scored runs in red-ball cricket.

Washington Sundar

Natural position in the batting order?

Lower-middle order at the senior level; opener at domestic and junior levels

What does his first class record look like?

797 runs in 16 matches at an average of 37.95

Attacking option or defensive?

Attacking

What’s the argument for his selection?

Statistically it is impossible to make a case for Sundar to open the batting in Test cricket – though he averages 66, the sample size is too small – but some of the greatest selection calls in the history of the sport have been through instincts. Likewise, this could prove to be one. Does Sundar have the numbers to back up his case? No. Is he experienced? No. Is there a paucity of openers in the country? Anything but that. But in the 502 balls he’s batted in Test cricket thus far, the youngster has shown that he’s a freak; a gem who could turn into a potential superstar with the bat. He is no normal batsman – if he was, he simply would not have batted the way he did, in extremely challenging conditions and situations, against both Australia and England, having not played ANY red-ball cricket in three years. In 4 Tests, the youngster proved to be the best batsman – in at least one innings – in 3 of them. A solid technique, adept against both spin and pace, and maturity and composure well beyond his age – you simply cannot ask more from an opener. And oh, throw into the mix the fact that he’s a left-hander.

What’s the argument against his selection?

In each of the 4 Tests he played, Sundar was selected primarily for his ability to bowl off-spin. There were, really, zero expectations on the batting front, and hence he simply was never under pressure to deliver, at least on a personal front. But should he be fast-tracked to open, things will be different. Also, not to mention the fact that he’s had just six Test innings under his belt, a hardly acceptable sample size to judge a batsman. Selecting Sundar would also be a kick in the gut for the other openers who’ve made their way into the squad by grinding it out at the domestic level; it could have severe ramifications, for the selection could end up sending a wrong message that talent > performance.

Natural position in the batting order?

Opening

What does his Test record as an opener look like?

1915 runs in 54 innings at an average of 36.83; top score of 199 vs England in Chennai

Attacking option or defensive?

What’s the argument for his selection?

To put it simply – KL Rahul is a generational talent. If players like him don’t succeed, it’s a loss for the team. He is immensely talented, and a match-winner like him often proves to be the differentiator between sides. By now, it’s well established that in England, you have to take the game to the bowlers to succeed, something that the Aussie batters had done well in the Ashes 2019. And that’s how Rahul had also hammered an exceptional 149 in his last Test appearance on the English soil. Moreover, no one has more experience than him as an opener in England, and that should help him as the conditions would no longer surprise him, instead he would be prepared to counter it. Also, he has grown in stature and confidence as a player post his white-ball success, and that should also help him present KL 2.0 in Tests to the world.

What’s the argument against his selection?

KL Rahul becomes a pale shadow of himself outside India as his average falls from 44.25 at home to 29.50 away, and if we classify it further to SENA countries, it goes down to 22.43. In his last 19 SENA innings, Rahul has crossed the 50-run-mark just once. It shows that despite the long run, he has been disappointing. In the 2018 England series, he had failed in 9 out of 10 innings. Also, his return to the Test side is more of a gamble, given it’s influenced by his white-ball displays than any kind of resurgence in red-ball cricket. So, there is not much to suggest that his susceptible technique, which had left him exposed last time, would have improved by now. Rohit Sharma returned to the side on a similar basis and till now, it hasn’t done wonders in overseas Tests, with him averaging only 33.22, despite all his experience and evolution.

Mayank Agarwal

Natural position in the batting order?

Opening

What does his Test record as an opener look like?

1005 runs in 21 innings at an average of 47.86; top score of 243 vs Bangladesh in Indore

Attacking option or defensive?

Attacking

What’s the argument for his selection?

A good judge of the off-stump, an unflappable temperament, a high backlift, and the hunger and discipline to play big knocks made Mayank Agarwal an instant hit as an opener. Not often do we see a player who turns the fastest to 1,000 Test runs (innings-wise) as an opener in the country’s history getting dropped a Test after, but Mayank was. He was averaging 47.85, had twin double-hundreds, and had scored more runs than anyone in the side since his debut when he lost his spot as an opener. The argument for him is pretty straightforward, his axing was harsh, and no one deserves the opening slot more than him in the present side for his remarkable displays in a short-Test career.

What’s the argument against his selection?

For someone who made a name for himself at the highest level by nailing away conditions in Australia, it’s ironic that it was his overseas displays that cost him his place in the side. After an incredible debut series, Mayank averaged a poor 17.75 in six Tests away from home in West Indies, New Zealand and Australia respectively. He had even failed to impress on India’s A tour of England, with scores of 0, 1, 0, and 68 in the two red-ball games, returning with a poor average of 17.25. There were issues with his backlift and foot movement Down Under and in swinging conditions, his technical frailties might well get exposed again, especially against the brand-new cherry.

Cheteshwar Pujara

Natural position in the batting order?

What does his Test record as an opener look like?

348 runs in 4 matches at an average of 116.00; top score of 145* vs Sri Lanka in Colombo

Attacking option or defensive?

Defensive

What’s the argument for his selection?

Pretty straightforward: promoting Pujara to open has a two-in-one benefit. One, India will maintain solidity at the top, and two the team can deploy a dynamic number three batsman who could take it to the opposition if the need arises. Pujara being a momentum-killer at No.3 has been a widespread criticism, but by promoting him to open, you’re essentially turning a weakness into a strength. Even against the Dukes, surviving the new ball is key to ensure stability, and Pujara will provide just that. He will also compliment Rohit, and the two have an already-established chemistry that will serve the team well. Promoting Pujara to open will also enable India to field an extra batsman in the middle-order, something that could prove to be invaluable in conditions skewed in favor of the bowlers.

What’s the argument against his selection?

Pujara, firstly, is untested as an opener outside Asia, but both his recent form and his record in England suggests that the move could potentially turn out to be a catastrophe. In 10 Tests in England, Pujara has averaged a mere 27.52, and the right-hander has passed fifty just thrice in 20 innings. More worryingly, though, he’s averaged just  28.03 across the past two years (18 Tests), making many fear that he is in the midst of a steep decline. Pujara is also someone who values spending time at the crease more than scoring runs, but such an approach, as we witnessed in the WTC Final, could be suicidal against the Dukes, which never really stops moving at any point in the day.

Natural position in the batting order?

Middle-order

What does his Test record as an opener look like?

21 runs in 2 innings at an average of 10.50; top score of 13 vs Australia in Melbourne

Attacking option or defensive?

What’s the argument for his selection?

Never have been numbers more deceptive than for Hanuma Vihari as an opener for India when he ended up with scores of 8 and 13 respectively against Australia. The value of his 8, which came off 66 deliveries and the opening stand of 40, was far greater than numbers can suggest as it laid the first brick of India’s historic Test win at the MCG. Technically solid, temperamentally adept, a batsman who swears by the textbook and old-school virtues of classical Test batting, he brings a certain calmness and reliability as an opener. Especially after the SCG classic, where he played a blockathon virtually on one leg, his confidence as a Test player would be at an all-time high. Not to forget, he has a fifty against his name in his solitary Test in England and has already played more red-ball cricket in the UK this summer than any other Indian batsman.

What’s the argument against his selection?

Well, for starters, playing a make-shift opener when there are three specialist opening options present in the side wouldn’t send the right signal to the personnel concerned. Secondly, unlike Australia, just seeing off the new ball in England wouldn’t help India’s cause as the Duke Balls move even more as they get older, which means a defensive option is not ideal. Moreover, the right-hander had failed in County games this summer, averaging 16.6 and crossing the fifty-run-mark just once in six innings. Thirdly, for all the solidity that Vihari brings to the plate, he averages a meagre 32.84 in Test cricket and has often failed to convert starts. Playing him in a tougher spot might well add to his woes if anything.

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Janice Tilson

Janice has been phenomenal in the success of Stock Market Pioneer. She is the super dedicated types, always glued to her computer. She talks less, but when it comes to work, she is behind none. She is a tech geek and contributes to the technology section of Stock Market Pioneer.

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