India captain and batting talisman Virat Kohli will miss the latter half of the Test series against Australia – here’s who can try and fill his sizeable boots at No.4.
It’s the news that worried India fans the moment Virat Kohli announced in August that, come January 2021, his family would be three. And now, it’s been confirmed that the talismanic India captain and batsman will miss the last three Tests of the four-match series Down Under on paternity leave.
Kohli will be absent for the traditional Boxing Day Test, starting December 26 in Melbourne, the New Year’s Test in Sydney, starting January 7, and the finale at the Gabba. It’ll be a huge loss, more so considering Kohli’s immense success down under; in 2011/12, he was India’s only centurion in the 0-4 drubbing, in 2014/15, he scored four hundreds in the series – only the second Indian to do so after Sunil Gavaskar – and then in 2018/19, he became the first India captain to win a series in Australia.
The effects of Kohli’s absence on captaincy is a topic for another day. Here we look at India’s batting line-up, and the players in the squad who could, potentially, fill the sizeable void that will be left by the captain. Kohli being the No.2 ranked Test batsman in ICC rankings means filling his shoes isn’t going to be easy on anyone given the task.
But India do have a hugely talented squad, and it’s in moments like this that future stars emerge. That in mind, we look at the players likely to take up the No.4 role in Kohli’s absence.
Ajinkya Rahane is among the obvious candidates to fill in for Kohli, both in terms of his batting position and in leading the side. Rahane has excelled for the most part in his position at No.5, increasingly making a name for himself with crucial performances, especially overseas. How will he fare with a move up one spot?
In 65 Tests, Rahane has batted at four only in five innings. In the West Indies in 2016, when Kohli batted at No.3, Rahane filled in at No.4 at Gros Islet, scoring 78* in the second innings. In 2017, against Australia at Dharamsala, he’d replaced the injured Kohli as captain and once again batted at four, scoring 46 and 38*. While keeping in mind the sample size is small, he averages 70 batting at four in Test cricket. It’s the straightforward option for India.
Having been sidelined for the last two Test series, Rahul has earned a spot in the 18-man squad for the marquee clash against Australia, mostly thanks to his irrepressible form in white-ball cricket. Rahul was expected to slug it out with Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill to become Mayank Agarwal’s opening partner, but the potential absence of Kohli gives him another route towards reigniting his Test career, which for a while in the last year seemed on the wane.
Rahul is predominantly an opener, but in his 36-match Test career, he has also played four matches at No.3 and one as far down as No.6. His technique is sound and he possess the sort of dynamic game that is well-suited to No.4. In that way, he perhaps makes for an ideal replacement for Kohli. In white-ball cricket, Rahul has made a name for himself as India’s utility player, able to adapt his game to different positions. Perhaps he can do the same in Tests as well.
After racking up the runs consistently season after season in domestic cricket, G Hanuma Vihari finally got his India call in 2018, with a first-class average of 59.79, which was famously better than even Steve Smith’s at the time. Since then, Vihari has played quietly efficient knocks, mostly at No.6, scoring a century against West Indies last year.
However, as good as he’s been down there, six may be too low for Vihari. His haul of first-class runs – 6,860 in 85 matches – have mostly come at No.3 and No.4 for Andhra Pradesh, and he certainly has the experience of playing in that role to fill in for Kohli. Vihari has also now bedded in at Test level, and the time has come for him to tried out at a more demanding position in the line-up – this could be an ideal opportunity for that.
For Gill, among the most highly-rated young cricketers in India, filling in for arguably the best batsman in the world would be quite a way to make his Test debut. Gill will be vying for the opening slot alongside Mayank Agarwal, alongside Rahul and Shaw, but perhaps, given the impression he has made so far, a case can be made for playing him at four.
He has 2,133 runs in 21 first-class matches at a terrific average of 73.55. He has seven centuries already in the format, and a large portion of those runs have come as an opener. He has the technique to play Test cricket, and given his feats so far, he also does seem to have the temperament to face the best bowlers. It may be worth the punt, playing him at four, although the chances of that are distinctly unlikely.
The dashing wicketkeeper-batsman has been under some scrutiny recently, due to his form in the IPL, his fitness, and the fact that the selectors decided to leave him out of the limited-overs squad for the series in Australia. That makes his presence in the Test squad, alongside Wriddhiman Saha, all the more intriguing – does they see him as a better batsman as Saha? Why leave him out of the limited-overs teams then?
Pant, if he does score runs in the manner he did on his last Test tour of Australia, when he scored a century in Sydney, would be a game-changer at four, should the management go that way. He needs a few good outings to keep his place in the side, and if those runs come in the position the team captain would have otherwise occupied, it’s even better. It would be an intriguing, if adventurous, move.
Other options: With Rohit Sharma being called into the Test squad, having originally missed out on selection across formats due to a hamstring injury, chances are that he could feature at four. However, his success as a red-ball opener against South Africa last year means he will more likely be persisted with at the top of the order, a position from where he can be devastating.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect confirmation that Virat Kohli is set to miss three Tests in Australia on paternity leave.