Technique vs temperament: Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal and India’s Test opening concerns
Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal: Who will get the nod? © Getty

India‘s search for two reliable Test openers continues, followed the 2-0 series win over West Indies in the Caribbean recently.

Prithvi Shaw’s absence on account of a doping violation saw KL Rahul retained in India’s Test squad, but he averaged 25.25 in four innings with a best score of 44. Rahul’s opening partner Mayank Agarwal fared poorly too, with an average of 20 from as many innings and one fifty (he made 55 in India’s first innings at Sabina Park).

Former India captain Sourav Ganguly believes that Rohit Sharma can translate his strong white-ball form into Test cricket, if given the chance as opener in place of the struggling Rahul. Gautam Gambhir, India’s third most successful Test opener, feels that Rohit will have to wait for his chances in Tests.

Anil Kumble, India’s greatest match-winner with the ball in Tests, is wary of pushing Rohit into the opener’s role in red-ball cricket.

Rohit Sharma World Cup 2019
Rohit Sharma top-scored at the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. (Image: Twitter)

On the sidelines, the likes of domestic openers Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal are knocking on the selectors’ doors for a chance in Tests.

So come India’s next Test series, which starts October 2 against South Africa at home, who will the chosen openers be?

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Rahul’s problems in the West Indies were a continuation of his red-ball slump from 2018. Scores of 44, 38, 13 and 6 mean that of Rahul’s 60 innings in Test cricket, 21 have been between 10 and 49.

“KL Rahul has flattered to deceive and that creates an opening at the top,” Ganguly said last week. “I had suggested earlier about trying Rohit Sharma as an opener in Test cricket and I still believe that he needs to be given an opportunity because he is too good a player to be left out in the cold. After a fantastic World Cup, I believe he will be itching to grab the opportunity to open in Tests.”

In the first Test at Antigua, Agarwal’s uncertain footwork saw him caught behind to Kemar Roach and lbw to Roston Chase. In the second Test, he made 55 until an ambitious cut shot against Jason Holder saw him caught at first slip. In the second innings, Agarwal was beaten for pace by Roach and trapped lbw.

Rahul’s and Agarwal’s problems in the West Indies highlighted a trend of Test openers struggling when the conditions are tough and the new-ball bowlers are accurate. And with Rahul, it appears that he has not learned from the mistakes made last year in England and Australia.

KL Rahul was bowled twice in the Perth Test, making it seven out 11 innings.
Rahul was bowled twice in the Perth Test last December, making it seven out of 11 innings. © AFP

In five Tests in England, Rahul was bowled five times. The other five dismissals were lbw thrice, caught in the cordon twice. Subtract that 149 he made in the dead rubber at The Oval, and Rahul had scores of 4, 13, 8, 0, 23, 26, 36, 19 and 37. In Australia, Rahul batted five times and scored 57 runs, of which 44 came in one innings. Around that knock which promised so much more, he made  2, 2, 0 and 9.

The failures of Rahul and Agarwal in the West Indies mirrored that of some openers during the ongoing Ashes series. England’s white-ball specialist Jason Roy made 10, 28, 0, 2, 9 and 8 in the first three Tests while opening. Handed a debut in Tests after a strong World Cup, the Surrey batsman has failed in his new role and was pushed down into the middle order for the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford, where he made 22 and 31 but had his technique exposed by pace once again.

Roy, 28, has admitted that opening the innings in Tests has been extremely difficult.

In the Australian camp, rookie opener Marcus Harris has scores of 8, 19, 13 and 6 in two Ashes Tests. He replaced Cameron Bancroft, who made 8, 7, 13 and 16 in two Tests in England. And David Warner, around one score of 61 in his comeback Test series, has failed to get to double figures in his seven other Ashes innings. Warner has three ducks in the series, including a pair at Old Trafford, and has fallen to England pace bowler Stuart Broad on six of eight occasions.

David Warner 1 @ AFP
David Warner has fallen to Stuart Broad six times in eight Ashes innings. © AFP

Speaking during the fourth Ashes Test, former England captain Mike Atherton analysed why ball is dominating bat.

“The battle for an opening batsman in Test cricket is around about the top of off stump and the best bowlers, like Josh Hazlewood, will land it there more often than the less-good ones. The best opening batsman are the ones who make the best decisions about what to play, leave and attack in that very narrow area,” he told Sky Sports.

Another former England Test skipper, Nasser Hussain, pointed at the influence of white-ball cricket.

“When I was brought up you were told to play with soft hands and let the ball come to you. That is where the game has been infiltrated by white-ball cricket. High back-lifts, hard hands going at the ball, people being castled a lot. Playing late and underneath your eyes seems to have gone,” he said.

Australian cricket legend Ricky Ponting recently commented on how technology has allowed bowlers to work out where batsmen have weaknesses. “There is a lot more analysis – where is this one little chink in this guy’s armour that we can expose? You cannot survive if you have weaknesses, you need the courage and want to go and change things innings to innings or mid-series,” said Ponting.

Speaking to CricketCountry last year, former Australia batsman Dean Jones had identified a problem with techniques of top-order Test batsman. “I think it has to do with the falling standard of Test cricket, and the agronomy of pitches around the world, which are dropping, but I dare say that batsmanship is not what it used to be,” Jones had said. “I think they don’t to face the new ball or the reverse-swinging ball, so that’s where its come to and it’s a bit sad in a way.”

India cricket team opener Mayank Agarwal
Mayank Agarwal managed just one fifty in four Test innings in the West Indies. © AFP

Also in conversation with CricketCountry, former Indian batsman turned TV analyst Sanjay Manjrekar agreed with Jones that batsmen today are happier slotting down to avoid facing the new ball. “The good ones want to bat down the order. [Joe] Root wants to bat four. Mushfiqur [Rahim] wants to bat four, six. Dump the gloves, bat at three, I say. The tendency is to be in the comfort zone and bat down the order,” he said.

Added former India Test opener Aakash Chopra: “I think it is starting with poor opening combos across the globe … the No 3 is getting exposed too quickly and therefore, teams are finding ways to shield their best batsman by pushing him at No 4. It is one of the problems.”

Across three Test matches at venues such as Visakhapatnam, Pune and Ranchi, India’s openers will face the likes of Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi and and Anrich Nortje. None of these venues is known to assist pace, but South Africa have a very good pace attack and it remains to seen if similar pressure is put on India’s top order as West Indies’ pacers did recently.

With Shaw banned until November, Agarwal has done enough to retain his place for three Tests against South Africa but will need to produce some strong scores to hold on. On form, Rahul has a lot to do show he deserves further chances opening in Tests. Rohit has white-ball success to his name, but opening in Tests against the red ball – even in docile Indian conditions – is a different ballgame.

India’s revolving door of Test openers continues to move.