2nd Test, Hyderabad: Australia in mind, last chance for India to test Mayank Agarwal
If Mayank Agarwal is headed to Australia, he needs to play the Hyderabad Test. @IANS

December 6. Brisbane. The Gabbatoir, where Australia have not lost a Test since 1988. This iconic venue will mark the start of India’s four-Test series against Australia, the one which, after series defeats in South Africa and England, skeptics and critics alike are terming as the next nail in the coffin for Virat Kohli’s team.

One Test – one feeble, measly Test against West Indies – remains for Kohli and India before the Brisbane showdown. The same West Indies that were beaten inside three days in Rajkot last week.

How this can be practice for a tour as challenging as Australia beats most sane people, but that is the nature of the game today. Show up, compete as best you can, and move on to the next series. We saw it last December, when Sri Lanka were pummelled by India who went to South Africa and lost 1-2. The wheel turns.

To counter the physical aura of the Gabba, the sweltering heat and the hostile fans, India’s batsmen will need to stand up and compete. Not the compete in the way they did in England, but really compete – much in the way that Murali Vijay did there in December 2014 when he scored a superb 144 on day one.

Scores of 56, 100, 85, 80 and 2 in three four-day matches for Essex in the aftermath of his axing from the Test squad in England did not earn Vijay a recall for the West Indies series. Shikhar Dhawan was discarded after averaging 20.25 in England. Neither appears likely to earn recalls for the Australia tour, which draws significance on India’s openers for that tour. KL Rahul has the team’s faith and recent comments  made by Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane indicate that Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal will be given opportunities to prove their value.

Prithvi Shaw became the youngest Indian cricketer to score a century on debut.
Prithvi Shaw became the youngest Indian cricketer to score a century on debut. @AFP

Shaw’s debut Test century was a thing of beauty, but it came on a flatbed against a threadbare West Indies attack missing their two most experienced bowlers. The 18-year-old faced tougher bowling when he scored 154 for India Red versus India Blue last season, against an attack featuring Ishant Sharma, Jaydev Unadkat, Pankaj Singh, Akshay Wakhare and Suresh Raina. The 123 he made for Mumbai against Tamil Nadu in the last Ranji Trophy came when he faced R Ashwin, Washington Sundar, K Vignesh and Yo Mahesh. No disrespect to West Indies meant, but the attack they fielded in Rajkot was poorer.

But a debut century at the age of 18 is something special, and Shaw’s career graph has shown he’s made of an extra layer of skin. He will go to Australia, and chances are he will succeed because Australia has proven an easier country to bat in over the past decade than it has before. Understandably, one can express concern at an 18-year-old, just two Tests old, being exposed to Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. But Shaw has not looked daunted by any of the challenges he’s faced on the pitch so far, even if murmurs swirl about his application needing tightening.

Which brings us to Agarwal. He got his first India call-up on the back of sustained success across the summer: he was India A’s leading run-getter with 287 from four games as they won a tri-series with England A and West Indies A, then scored 246 runs for title-winners India Red in a quadrangular series, followed by a double-century for India A vs South Africa A. Earlier, Agarwal finished the 2017-18 domestic season with a record-breaking 2,141 runs to push his case for India selection.

He did not get a chance in Rajkot, but with the Hyderabad Test the only one for India before the series opener at the Gabba in December, this is the time for India to blood the 27-year-old. Agarwal has experience opening for Karnataka, particularly when Rahul has been away. If he is indeed the third opener India have penciled in for Australia, he needs to get his debut in Hyderabad to get a feel for what Test cricket is about, even if it comes on a docile track against an attack like West Indies. Knowing you are a Test cricketer is far better than being a hopeful one.

KL Rahul was out for 0 in the Rajkot Test.
KL Rahul was out for 0 in the Rajkot Test. @AFP

Rahul has the team’s backing, clearly. He also has a century in Australia, in just his second Test. That kind of faith looks likely to be granted to India’s two fresh faces in Australia. Giving Rahul an opportunity in Australia in 2014-15 after he racked up a mountain of runs was reward for domestic success; giving him a second chance in Sydney after a horror debut was a big step taken by that Indian management back then.

Rahul is a certainty for Australia. But issues persist. Last Thursday’s dismissal for 0 in the opening over of the Rajkot Test was Rahul’s 10th dismissal in 11 international innings in which he has been out bowled or lbw. It was also the 23rd time in 49 Test innings that has been dismissed inside 25 deliveries faced. If you set aside the 149 that Rahul made in the dead rubber Oval Test in August, Rahul’s Test batting average for the year sits at 15.6.

India have a chance to afford Agarwal the same opportunity they did to Shaw last week. It can do no harm to bench Rahul for the Hyderabad Test and see what Agarwal has. Come Brisbane, and having your third opener knowing what Test cricket feels like could prove to be a big safety net for India.