IND vs ENG: What is India’s Battle Plan to Survive the Virat Kohli Vacuum

Since the infamous Adelaide Test of 2020, India have played 31 Tests out of which their talisman Virat Kohli has not featured in five of them – three in that epic 2020 series itself with Kohli flying back home for the birth of his first child after the first Test. The next he missed was the series opener against New Zealand in Kanpur in 2021 with India fielding a depleted side for the 1st Test, while the most recent one was the Johannesburg Test in 2022, owing to a back spasm.

Now, Kohli has withdrawn from the first two Tests of the upcoming India vs England series 2024 citing personal reasons. Ever since India’s loss to Australia in the World Test Championship last year, India have been steadily moving towards a transition in the Test format. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have been the biggest casualties of this new thought process while there have been as many as four debutants for India since the WTC final – Ishan Kishan, Yashaswi Jaiswal, Mukesh Kumar and Prasidh Krishna. KS Bharat and Suryakumar Yadav also made their debuts in 2023 in the India vs Australia series before the WTC final.

With Jaiswal cementing his position at the top of the order with Rohit, and Shubman Gill trying to find his feet at No.3, Kohli, at No.4, is India’s rock in the middle-order.

But, for how long?

Do You Go Back to Pujara, Rahane?

The transition will eventually come knocking at Kohli’s doors and in the same vein, Rohit Sharma as well. And like Rahane and Pujara, Kohli’s Test numbers have dwindled in this time frame, while Rohit’s has picked up. Since the Adelaide Test, Kohli has played 26 matches scoring 1530 runs at 35.58 with two hundreds to his name. These numbers are a far cry from his career average of 49.15, and in this time frame, five other players have played more than 10 Test matches whose numbers are better than Kohli – Rishabh Pant (47.00), Rohit (44.33), Shreyas Iyer (39.27), Ravindra Jadeja (37.40), Axar Patel (36.64).

Rahane and Pujara in this period were 30.51 and 26.00 in 25 and 19 matches, respectively. Gill has not been any better either with 30.58 in 20 matches.

This is not to say, ‘Oh look at the numbers, Kohli is done’. Not at all, but there would come an eventuality to look for a long-term No.4 soon and Kohli’s withdrawal from the first two Tests gives India the ideal opportunity to do that exactly,

Interestingly, the Tests that Kohli skipped since Adelaide 2020 – India went with Rahane at No.4. In Australia he led the team to its most memorable away series win, while he was at the helm again in Kanpur and he stepped up to the job in Johannesburg a year later.

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His returns, you ask. – 112, 27*, 22, 4, 37, 24, 35, 4, 0, 58.

Even though Rahane still harbours hope for a Test return his recent exploits do not make a case for him. In his last ten matches (two FC and right List A) he has managed a score of over fifty only once and has been dismissed in single digit scores six times including two ducks. Pujara, on the other hand, had a score of 243*, two fifties and three 40-plus scores in his last ten matches. But will it be prudent for India to go back to these veterans as a stop-gap arrangement? Highly unlikely.

Shreyas Iyer Primed for No.4 Spot in Indian Conditions

That brings us to the current crop. Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul are there in the squad for the first two Tests. If Kohli was available, Iyer would have slotted in at 5 and the fight would have been between Rahul and Bharat for the wicketkeeper slot. Looking at Indian conditions, Bharat could have got the nod over Rahul – purely looking at the workload. With three spinners most likely to operate for India, Rahul would have his work cut out behind the stumps.

While Rahul should remain the first-choice keeper in overseas conditions, Bharat makes more sense in India. It is the same logic as when Pant was preferred overseas, and Wriddhiman Saha was the home condition specialist. Now with Kohli unavailable, that conundrum also gets solved. Rahul can bat as a pure batter and Bharat as a specialist stumper. Bump up Iyer at No.4 in place of Kohli.

There is no denying the fact that Iyer is currently the best player of spin in this Indian team, and he bats more aggressively and authoritatively against the tweakers.

The Australia series did show that even though India are a dominant force with their spinners, the Indian batters have had it tough like their overseas compatriots, and Iyer shines the brightest among them.

Since his debut in 2021, Iyer has been the highest run-getter in Test in India with 430 runs in seven matches striking at 68.03. Only Travis Head with three matches has a higher strike rate than Iyer for players to have played minimum 4 innings in India in that time frame.

And if India have to take the first step towards looking at a viable No.4 option after Kohli, at least in Indian conditions – Iyer’s promotion to No.4 in these two upcoming Tests makes the perfect sense.

The Other Contenders

Rajat Patidar and Sarfaraz Khan – both have stellar numbers in domestic. Patidar, despite battling injuries, boasts an FC average of 45.97, while Sarfaraz’s is at 68.20. In the last Ranji season (2022-23), both, batting primarily in the middle order, scored runs in bulk. Patidar 565 runs at 47.08, while Sarfaraz 556 at 92.66. In the India A tour game vs England Lions earlier this month, 30-year Patidar made 111 off 141 as an opener, while 26-year-old Sarfaraz made 96 off 111 at No.4.

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In the 1st unofficial Test that followed against the same opponents, Patidar grinded out a marvellous 151 off 158 in Ahmedabad when none of the other India A batters managed a score over 25. Sarfaraz made 4 in that innings. In the second dig, Patidar was knocked over for 4, while Sarfaraz hit 55. Bharat got himself some good hits in the middle with an unbeaten 116.

India will announce the backup for Kohli today (most likely), and the debate would be – which from the two. If Sarfaraz was in the Indian scheme of things he would have got an India call-up at least two years back. He has been the beast in domestic cricket over the last few years and has age on his side. But it could be Patidar courtesy is performance vs England Lions.

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