Is Iyer’s arrival the answer for a team in transition?

For the five Indian selectors, Shreyas Iyer’s 170 runs in his Test debut has become more of a headache, even though he might be exactly what the Indian team needs right now

The 26-year-old got this chance against New Zealand in Kanpur simply because regular Team India skipper Virat Kohli was ‘rested’ after a hectic overseas season ending with the T20 World Cup in the UAE.

Iyer not only scored a century on his Test debut but became the first Indian to score an elusive double when he went on to score a half-century in the second knock. 

With his century, Iyer joins legendary wrist player Gundappa Viswanath as the only Indians to score Test centuries on debut at Green Park. It was 52 years ago when Viswanath lit up the Green Park with his stylish flicks, cuts and drives to torment the Australian bowling line-up.

Iyer’s heroics came in at a time when two of India’s senior-most batters, stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane and Mr Dependable Cheteshwar Pujara, continue to struggle with a lean patch. 

At a time when the entire Indian Cricket Board (BCCI) has been facing fire over Team India’s future after a poor show in the recent T20 World Cup, Iyer’s innings has added more fuel to it. 

Hence the dilemma that captain Kohli or the chairman of selection committee Chetan Sharma are facing is simple and straight… Who will make way for Kohli in Mumbai’s second Test starting December 3 (Friday)? 

Going by recent form, the obvious answer is Rahane who scored 35 and 04 in the Kanpur Test. The 33-year-old’s batting average has fallen to 39.01 which has been his worst since February 2014 when he touched an all-time low of 37.28. 

But hold on… Another 33-year-old Pujara has also not scored a century in his last 40 innings since January 2019. His last century was during the Australian tour which India won sensationally. While Rahane has scored 197 runs in the last 10 Test innings with the help of just one half-century, Pujara has managed 275 during the same time with two half-centuries. 

Since 2020, Pujara has yielded only 802 runs at an average of 27.65 without any three-figure score. But it was his rearguard effort during the Sydney Test in 2021 which was applauded by everyone in the cricket fraternity. India vice-captain Rahane, meanwhile, scored three centuries during the same period. 

 

How to save Rahane or Pujara?

The only way that Rahane or for that matter Pujara could be saved from sitting out from Mumbai Test is if Team India think-tank drops opener Mayank Agarwal and instead experiment with either Pujara or wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha at the top along with Shubman Gill. 

Mayank Agarwal of India looks on during the India nets session at the Sydney Cricket Ground Photo: Getty Images

Pujara has done it in the past and has a healthy average of 118 as an opener. Saha, on the other hand, has never opened for India in the past but then he has done that in the white-ball formats for his Indian Premier League team.

The other way in which the Indian team can retain both these senior batters is by playing with only four regular bowlers, dropping one of the pacers, and expecting part-timers like Iyer and Rahane to bowl a few overs in between to give break to the regulars. Pacer Ishant Sharma could well be dropped for not taking a wicket in Kanpur. 

Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel shared the new ball in Kanpur’s second innings and one of them could well repeat that in Mumbai. But then expecting four regular bowlers to take the required 20 wickets on the Mumbai track could backfire for India. 

Indian selectors have already been facing criticism over dropping off Hanuma Vihari from the list. The 28-year-old from Andhra Pradesh debuted for the Indian Test team in 2018 after his phenomenal record in first-class cricket. He has played 12 matches and has scored 624 runs with an average of 32.84. He holds a century and four half-centuries under his cap at present.

With the kind of grit he showed against Australia in his last appearance, saving the match with gritty 23 off 161 deliveries, Vihari could not be kept away from the Indian side for long and continues to be a threat to Pujara at No 3.

 

Iyer, a long innings ahead

Coming back to Iyer’s sensational batting efforts in Kanpur, coming out to bat at No 5 he played with composure to chalk out a brilliant hundred. 

Having got the India Cap by none other than Sunil Gavaskar just before the toss, Iyer joined the elite list of batters who scored a hundred on their first appearance in the longest version of the game. The great Lala Amarnath was the first Indian batter to score a century on his Test debut, which he did while playing against England at Mumbai in 1933. 

Unfortunately, Amarnath senior and the next four Indian batters who began their life in Test cricket with a century — Deepak Shodhan, A  Kripal Singh, Abbas Ali Baig and Hanumant Singh — failed to reach the three-figure mark again in Test cricket. 

The unlucky record was finally broken by Gundappa Viswanath, who began his Test journey against Australia in 1969-70 and scored a duck in the first essay. However, he came good in the second knock by smashing unbeaten 137. He scored his next hundred against England at Mumbai in the last Test of the series in 1972-73 and thus broke that hoodoo.

After Deepak Shodhan, A  Kripal Singh, Abbas Ali Baig and Hanumant Singh failed to score test centuries it was Gundappa Viswanath who broke the curse Photo: Getty Images

Later on another Amarnath, Surinder Amarnath who also scored a century like his father on his debut also joined the same list of never scoring a Test hundred in his career. It was left to Mohammad Azharuddin, who started his innings in Test cricket by scoring back to back hundreds in the first three Tests that he played (110, 105 and 122), to cure this curse in Indian cricket. 

Later on, Pravin Amre, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Prithvi Shaw joined the debutante’ party but Amre and Raina joined the earlier list of cursed players to have only one three-figure knock to show before their name in the Test cricket. The young and talented Mumbai batsman Shaw, however, has many years left in his promising career. 

Iyer was part of the Indian Under-19 team for the 2014 World Cup where he scored back-to-back fifties to help India finish fifth in the tournament. He caught the attention of many by scoring big in his first Ranji Trophy domestic season in 2014-15. In just his second season and barely out of his teens, he scored 1321 runs at an average of over 73 to help Mumbai win their 41st Ranji Trophy title in 2015-16. 

He was rewarded for his heroics in the domestic circuit when Delhi Daredevils picked him as an uncapped player for a whopping Rs 2.6 crore in the 2015 Indian Premier League season. His rise was so phenomenal that the Delhi franchise was promoted as a permanent captain by the 2018 IPL season, replacing Gautam Gambhir.

Iyer’s only dream left till now is to be part of India’s Test XI and he wasn’t lined up for a debut in Kanpur. He got this opportunity because Kohli was rested, Vihari was sent off to South Africa with India ‘A’ team to get a taste of wickets there ahead of the India tour and in-form KL Rahul got injured.

In a team that is in transition now, who knows Iyer could well be the batsman India have been searching for!

(Cover: Shreyas Iyer of India looks on during the 2nd T20 International match between India and England at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad Photo: Getty Images)

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Chander Shekhar Luthra
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