No.1 team must solve ‘middle’ riddle to excel
In his first news conference after taking charge, Rahul Dravid spelt out his priorities, stressing that he would take his time and get a feel of how the system works. Almost two months into his role, the head coach has been given a rude awakening of the circumstances.
If the series loss in South Africa wasn’t bad enough, he will now have to deal with almost rebuilding the No.1 team, whose batting nucleus needs an overhaul coupled with the imminent change of captaincy.
But the head coach is not new to such challenges. As captain, Dravid had to deal with the most volatile phase of Indian cricket following the Greg Chappell-Sourav Ganguly fallout. More than a decade later, he finds himself in a situation where the team needs a smooth transition following a lean run from the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.
But then, Virat Kohli too hasn’t been in the pink of form. Twelve successive overseas dismissals nicking in the cordon behind the wicket is not something which can be brushed aside. Even during his 79 in the final Test in Cape Town a similar shot ended his innings, the show of restraint notwithstanding.
Dravid will be best equipped to sort out if any technical frailties have crept in, but Kohli has now gone through 27 Test innings without a century since the 136 against Bangladesh at Eden Gardens in November 2019.
There is hope he would bat freely given that the shackles associated with captaincy are now gone. Another school of thought is that Kohli will take time to adjust to his new role as an ordinary member of the team since he has always thrived when responsibility has been thrust upon him.
The BCCI is expected to announce the new captain before the home Test series against Sri Lanka next month. Rohit Sharma is the preferred choice across formats, but the limited-overs captain’s fitness and workload will be debated upon by the selectors.
Rohit and Dravid’s role in making Kohli feel comfortable will play a crucial role in guiding the team’s fortunes. Kohli himself admitted in his last news conference as captain that there was “no running away” from the fact that India’s batting needs to be looked into.
Look at the performance of India’s No.3 batsman. While Keegan Petersen top scored with 276 runs in the three Tests, averaging 46.00 at No.3 for South Africa, India’s Pujara averaged 20.66.
The tale was not much different for the No.5 slot. Temba Bavuma topped the series averages with 73.66 for the home team while Rahane was left struggling at 22.66. The series was probably won and lost there.
There will be little to achieve if these two veterans are given an extended rope. The likes of Hanuma Vihari, Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill have been waiting in the wings for long to merit a place.
Kohli’s persistence for five bowlers could also demand a look-in if the middle-order fails to click consistently, especially in overseas conditions. His aggressive and impulsive leadership has defined the Kohli era, but for the new captain, a pragmatic approach could help in plugging the loopholes. And Rohit could find a suitable helping hand in Dravid.