Ajinkya Rahane’s continued poor form, Shreyas Iyer’s scintillating hundred on debut and Hanuma Vihari’s familiarity with the conditions — Sarah Waris looks at the never-ending debate of who could be India’s no.5 in South Africa, but the problem has no definite answer.
What works for him
Experience. The former vice-captain of the team has just started to slip down the pecking order. However, he still remains one of India’s most experienced players, which is worth its weight in gold in tough conditions. Rahane has had a disastrous run in the last year but has shown his mettle, playing two tough knocks when the team was in trouble. His hundred at the MCG last year helped India stage a comeback for the ages after they were bowled out for 36, while his knock of 61 at Lord’s after India were struggling at 55-3 proved crucial in the team’s win. He averages 53.20 in South Africa, which is the second-highest average by any India cricketer in the country (min. three Tests played).
Inconsistency. Despite his knocks in Melbourne and Lord’s, Rahane’s average in 2021 is 19.57 this year. His struggles are not just recent: since the beginning of 2017, Rahane has averaged more than 40 in a calendar year in Tests once, in 2019. In this interim, he has scored only four hundreds. The Mumbai player has not crossed 67 this year, and with the emergence of Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari, the team management might finally pull the strings. He has also been stripped of his vice-captaincy duties for the upcoming series.
What works for him
Sizzling debut. Shreyas Iyer was picked for the home series against New Zealand over Hanuma Vihari, and the batter made the most of his chances, scoring a combined 170 runs on debut. His first Test innings displayed his temperament — walking out to bat at 145-4, he started off cautiously before playing his strokes en route to 105 in 171 balls. He scored 65 in the second innings after the team had collapsed to 51-4. Iyer averages over 52 in 56 first-class games, and his recent form gives him an edge.
Inexperience. Iyer impressed in his debut series, but it can be argued that the runs were scored in familiar conditions. With the middle order in iffy form, and the absence of Ravindra Jadeja, India’s batting already looks weak, and the side might not want to push an inexperienced player in straightaway. The presence of Rahane and the more-experienced Vihari, who have fared decently in alien conditions, further makes it tough for Iyer to be a part of the XI on 26 December.
What works for him
Familiarity. Hanuma Vihari was not selected for the home series against New Zealand but was sent on India A’s tour to South Africa instead, reportedly so he could acclimatize himself to the conditions ahead of the senior team’s tour. The player was the star of the series, scoring 25, 54, 72*, 63, and 13* in three games. The hero of the epic draw at the SCG earlier this year, Vihari’s career Test average of 32.84 doesn’t paint an accurate picture. The cricketer has played 11 of his 12 Tests away from home, with crucial knocks across conditions. In wins, his average is an impressive 48.71, and the fact that the selectors picked him to tour South Africa with the A side hints that he could be the first-choice No.5. The injury to Jadeja weakens the batting line-up, and having a player who has been-there-done-that in his limited Test chances, makes him a strong contender.
Team favour. The only thing that could work against Vihari is that he has never been the first-choice in the XI, only playing away from home to strengthen the batting attack. The decision to not select him in the New Zealand home series could either indicate the hesitation of the management in selecting Vihari, but, on the other hand, the move to send him for the India A-South Africa A series could also show their trust in him. He sits in between Iyer and Rahane, neither young enough to be a hugely exciting talent, and without much white-ball success to catch the eye, but he’s also not been around enough to count as a senior player. Either way, courtesy of BCCI’s poor communication skills, we will never know and the major reason that Vihari doesn’t play could be individual preferences.