Curious case of number three for Team India
The Virat Kohli-led young Test team has every reason to be buoyant by creating history on Lankan soil after a gap of more than two decades. A come-from-behind win made the series even more special as it’s certainly a rare sight to see visiting teams fighting in that manner. Humid, sweaty, absorbing and rainy conditions of the Island made the 2-1 scoreline sweeter.
Success often hides flaws, a theory which is quite apt in a team sport. Without taking any credit away from Kohli & Co, who are ushering in a new era, skipper and team management have a lot to ponder over before they host the Proteas in October.
One major puzzle India have to solve, if they want to dictate terms in Test cricket, is their number three position,
Number three is odd. However, in Test cricket, it's a prime position to bat at. Arguably, best batsman in the team holds that slot. Most of the top Test sides, who have ruled the roost for a significant time in Test cricket have had a world-class batsman at their disposal at first drop.
The likes of Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara and Hashim Amla are few contemporaries, who made the number three slot their own while representing their respective countries.
If we look at the history, the batsman who actually made the sport realize the importance of No. 3 was undoubtedly the legendary Australian Sir Don Bradman.
To hold the reputed position in the team for long is a task in itself. One has to be consistent with the willow at all times. It’s not just about being technically sound, but one also needs to have a level of maturity to bat in all kind of pressure situations.
We have seen even the best batsmen wither under pressure at number three. Australian all-rounder Shane Watson and South Africa-born England batsman Jonathan Trott are the most recent examples, who have paid a heavy price.
With the retirement of Ponting, Watson was the one who tried to fill the big shoes for the Aussies.
The aggressive batsman showed his class and temperament initially to replace the second leading Test scorer in the world.
In fact, the duo (Trott and Watto) justified the slot to an extent by playing outstanding knocks at the highest level. But they couldn’t hold it for long. Constant psychological pressure to be consistent got the better of them and they melted away from their respective teams and announced premature retirements.
Pressure to bat at one down is such, that a section of cricket fraternity even suggested the mainstay and skipper of Australian team Steven Smith to change his batting-order.
Kohli-led Team India is also finding it difficult to fix the issue in the team. There is a pool of talented batsmen in India but to fill the big shoes of ‘the wall’ Rahul Dravid is indeed a Herculean task in itself.
Three batsmen are in the race to hold the prime batting slot. But is it a problem of plenty for the team management? Not quite.
In last 10 to 15 Tests we have seen Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma swapping the position.
Pujara was long ago touted to be Dravid's apt replacement. The right-hander even proved his credentials at this level. But a couple of average overseas tours in the past saw him struggling to get into the playing XI. In the 3rd and final Test at Lanka, the Saurashtra batsman was lucky to get a match, as injuries at the top-order left team management with no other option. Pujara, who batted as an opener, didn’t let the chance slip out of his hands and played a typically patient knock of 145 and even carried the bat through the innings to make his case stronger. Pujara still seems to be the first choice for that vacant slot.
Rohit, 28, is undoubtedly extremely talented, but has done little to prove his mettle in whites since scoring two consecutive tons in his debut series against West Indies in 2013. The Mumbaikar looks more settled and calm while batting down the order, rather than facing the new red cherry. His big hitting abilities and counter-attacking style make him more of a number five or six Test batsman. However, since Rohit is still struggling to cement his place in Test cricket, to be India's permanent No. 3 is a distant dream for him.
Another Mumbai lad Rahane, who is one year younger than Rohit, has proved that he can perform anywhere in the world and can even subdue the meanest of bowlers of his era. Rahane possesses the ability, class and temperament to give Pujara a tough fight for the position. Though, if we see the current Indian batting line-up, it needs a batsman of Rahane’s stature to walk in at number 5 rather than 3. It will not only strengthen the Indian batting but also get a perfect batsman down the order who knows how to bat with the tail. For the record, Rahane has scored maximum runs at number five to date. Even his mentor Dravid feels that the talented batsman should play at five.
Another young batsman who could be a threat to Pujara’s position in the future is KL Rahul. A genuine opener otherwise, Rahul could fight for the slot if regular team openers Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan keep performing consistently at the top. With two overseas tons (first in Oz and then in SL) in a short span of five Tests, Rahul is certainly winning the trust of selectors.
Skippers generally take ‘problem of plenty’ quite positively but at times it also leads to growing insecurity among the batsmen, which could affect their performances. As far as number three position is concerned, a team should have a regular batsman, which gives it much-needed stability.
Before India start their campaign against South Africa, where they are scheduled to play four Tests at home soil, Kohli and team management have to come out with a solution. Otherwise, in the long run, Team India could face serious consequences for it.