India’s dominant run at home faces its most serious challenge yet as a series of injuries, player unavailability and concerns over form threaten to stall the host team’s progress. The injury ward stayed full as KL Rahul, who had missed the second Test due to a thigh injury, was ruled out of the third Test against England to be played in Rajkot starting on Thursday.
When the Indian team assembled in the Gujarat city after their week-long break on Sunday, KL Rahul was conspicuous by his absence. As the day wore on, it became clear that Rahul won’t be able to return in time for the third Test. Rahul’s absence wouldn’t have been the body blow that it is in normal circumstances. But the batting star had switched from opening to shore up the middle-order in Test cricket, only recently in South Africa, and was expected to step up with Virat Kohli missing the series for personal reasons.
The Karnataka batter did that ably in the first Test at Hyderabad. Once he was injured, India turned to Shreyas Iyer at No.4, usually nimble footed against spin and reasonably experienced too. But Iyer looked out of sorts in Visakhapatnam, preoccupied perhaps by the dilemma the short ball seems to present him with. So out of it did he look that even with the paucity of resources, the selectors took the bold step to look past him for Rajkot; the batter’s back issues may have contributed as well.
All of this combined means that India will be forced to go with another tweaked middle-order and a new No.4. Rajat Patidar, with a solitary Test match to his name, is likely to be step up to a batting position usually held by Indian batting royalty — Sachin Tendulkar for a long time, and then Kohli.
SARFARAZ DEBUT LIKELY
In between all this, Sarfaraz Khan, the 26-year-old from Mumbai who averages 69.85 in domestic cricket, is all set to end his long wait and enter the big boys club. Karnataka left-hander Devdutt Padikkal, who has been in a rich run of form in the ongoing Ranji Trophy (556 runs, Avg 92.67), has been drafted in the side. Indications are that for now, he will remain the back-up.
During training on Monday, Sarfaraz did everything he was asked to. He batted in the centre-wicket against pace, to spin in the nets, did slip catching as well as short-leg drills.
The only respite for India was Ravindra Jadeja, who too has been picked subject to fitness, showed no discomfort while rolling his arm over or after his batting stint. His knowledge of the local conditions and his ability to find the spot with the ball on his home turf will be in precious demand. Returning from a hamstring injury, the all-rounder’s fitness will be monitored over the next two days.
Jadeja’s return will force the team management to choose between Kuldeep Yadav and Axar Patel. With the batting lacking heft, they may also consider Washington Sundar for his all-round skills over Mohammed Siraj. That would increase Jasprit Bumrah’s workload as the sole fast bowler.
The other move being given serious consideration is bringing in young Dhruv Jurel as wicket-keeper-bat ahead of KS Bharat, whose returns with the bat haven’t been up to scratch.
With muscle injuries becoming a worry, players didn’t exert themselves on any one particular skill during their three-hour long training session. But that didn’t deter Yashasvi Jaiswal, the youngest in the party and in just the right nick, from having an hour-long extended session at the centre-wicket with a simulated packed off-side field, as batting coach Vikram Rathore and Dravid watched on. The left-hander was in no tearing hurry to dissect the field — the IPL can wait — but wanted to stay oblivious of the fielders and perfect his front foot defence.
In the 2016 Test played here between the two sides, despite the flood of runs in the first innings, Kohli had saved the day by batting the day out on a pitch which was beginning to turn. With the India coach repeatedly saying his batters were leaving some runs in the middle, some old-fashioned dead-bat batting was practised during training.
Rajkot has seen runs galore in the two Test matches so far – India and England aggregated a 1000-plus runs in the first ever Test here in 2016 and India scored 649 in the first innings against West Indies in 2018. But with considerations such as WTC points at stake and India’s spin strength, the pitch is likely to still assist spin. But it’s unlikely to be a raging turner and the black soil may see lower bounce than seen at Visakhapatnam.
“A lot of India’s planning for the series has been forced to factor in the limitations of batting,” a BCCI official said. “Virat Kohli’s absence is a huge factor. India’s spinners would relish pitches where they can come into their own, but England can counter balance that with their batting.”
Either way, we are in for a few interesting days at Rajkot.