India vs Australia: Virat Kohli must be backed by other batsmen if visitors have to create history
Selectors seem to have pressed the replay button in picking the Test batsmen for the India's tour of Australia. A cursory look at the batting line-up that did the duty in the Sydney Test, the last of the 2014-15 Australia series, reveals that most members are part of the current team as well.
The Sydney line-up was: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav. Barring the injured Saha and the axed Raina, the current team is virtually the Class of 2014-15.
What worries is that except skipper Kohli, all other batsmen have regressed considerably. This is why cricket fans and selectors are hopeful, and not convinced, of some of the batsmen's ability to deliver under pressure.
Take, for instance, Rahane. He scored the last of his three centuries outside Windies and the Indian sub-continent in Melbourne in 2014. Before that, he scored a Test ton apiece in New Zealand and England. But following the 2014-15 tour, he got hundreds only in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Windies. His performances during subsequent tours of South Africa (average 28.5) and England (average 25.7) were below par.
Rahane is not the only batsman who has disappointed. His Mumbai teammate, Rohit Sharma, who made an impressive Test debut, has failed to build on the good start and is still struggling to cement a place in the longer version of the game. In five years, he has played just 25 Tests and has only three hundreds, all at home, to show for it. He scored 53 in the Sydney Test but has since got only one Test hundred (102 not out against Sri Lanka in Nagpur).
Opener KL Rahul was a rookie during the 2014-15 tour and caught the imagination of cricket fans with a brilliant unbeaten ton in Sydney. But, his career, too, has seen more despair than promise. He has five Test tons but has not been half as good. In fact, he is not even the first-choice opener this time around.
Murali Vijay, who probably will be his partner in the first Test, is the more experienced opener. He was one of the big successes of the 2014-15 tour, with one hundred, four 50s and a batting average of 60. Vijay, however, has seen his form drop and the Indian side is worried if Cheteshwar Pujara and he can stitch a big partnership. Their stroke-less crawl could surrender the initiative to the home team.
Pujara, who has 15 Test tons, doesn't travel well, be it Australia, England or South Africa. His highest score in Australia is 73. He will have to play out of his skin to set the record straight. It is Kohli who stands apart with a magnificent record in Australia. In the eight Tests he has played Down Under, Kohli has scored five centuries collecting 992 runs, with an average of 62. However, he alone will not be enough.
Perhaps that is why Indian selectors have banked on experience and hope that Australia's Kookaburra ball will not swing and seam enough to expose the batsmen. They hope that the lack of swing and lateral movement will allow the lesser batsmen to make their mark now that they know what to expect from the opposition and conditions.
It would be good to remember that the earlier generation provided far superior support to their lead batsman. Sachin Tendulkar with six hundreds and seven 50s stood head and shoulder above the rest but he was backed well. VVS Laxman (four 100s, four 50s), Virender Sehwag (two 100s, five 50s) and Rahul Dravid (one hundred, six 50s) all averaged above 40 on the Australian soil. Still their performances could not get the results India wanted.
Much is being made out of the forthcoming series as a contest between Kohli and Australia. The real story, however, will be the performance of the rest. Unless Vijay, Rahul, Pujara, Rahane, Sharma, Hanuma Vihari and Rishab Pant rise above their limitations, tame the Aussie bowlers and take the heat off Kohli, this Australian tour could turn out to be a winter of our discontent.