Technique vs temperament: Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal and India’s Test opening concerns

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.”

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.

WC win justification for how we went about the game in last four years

When tournaments are finally won, the victors often talk of relief. Relief that they have met, or exceeded, expectations, relief that they have got over the line. Relief, above all, that they will not have to live with the agony of defeat. Amid the happiness and excitement generated by England’s remarkable World Cup victory at Lord’s on Sunday, there is a palpable sense that the whole team, as well as the ECB, are relieved that four years of hard work has been rewarded with the ultimate prize. The alternative would have been unthinkable.

Beginning this tournament as favourites, with home advantage, and having swept aside most of their opponents since the last World Cup, the pressure was on England over the past seven weeks. A nation expected. Had they been unable to win the tournament, their best chance in a generation, plenty of questions would have been asked about Eoin Morgan’s team and the value of the progress they had made since their capitulation in Australia in 2015. Too fickle? Maybe. But it’s also the reality.

Those questions will never be asked of this team now. They will always be the team who won England’s first World Cup, the favourites who backed it up and delivered. It wasn’t perfect – far from it – but they beat India, Australia and New Zealand twice, the three other best teams, in what were effectively four consecutive knock-out games. They are worthy winners.

“It’s terribly exciting and justification for how we went about it for the last four years,” head coach Trevor Bayliss, who finally won a final after three previous unsuccessful attempts as a coach, said at The Oval on Monday. “At different times we have copped a bit of criticism for the way we went about it. But we had an end goal in mind and this is the result. I am one from four now so I am quite happy with at least getting one.

“To see the joy on the boys faces yesterday and to see the way they celebrated in the dressing room was all worth it.”

It was fitting, in a way, that England’s journey started four years ago in a series against New Zealand, the team they beat in yesterday’s final. Five brilliant matches in the early summer of 2015 showcased, for the first time, the bold style that is now the hallmark of this England team. They won the series 3-2 and started in style by making 408 in the first ODI. They chased 350 within 44 overs at Trent Bridge in the fourth game. They scored more than 300 in the first four matches. It was a revelation.

It was also a key moment in the development of this team, a line drawn under what had gone before and a radical change of approach initiated. That series was, Joe Root said, when the team started to believe they might be able to do something special in one-day cricket. “The way we performed throughout that series, the way Morgs laid things out and gave the guys opportunity to go and express themselves and play in that manner,” he said at the Oval.

“And seeing us do it and adapt to it so quickly obviously meant that we were good enough to do it. But it’s obviously a long road form there to continue to do it and look to improve be more consistent and grow as a team. It’s been such a fun journey these last four years.”

England have had their moments during that time, of course. They disappointingly lost in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy in 2017. They suffered thrashings against South Africa at Lord’s, against Australia in Adelaide and in Colombo against Sri Lanka, all on surfaces which did a bit. They lost other games too, including three in the group stages of the World Cup. But after each setback, England responded.

“The main plan was to let them go out and test the ceiling of how good they could be,” Bayliss said.”We knew they were going to stuff up. We knew they would lose games and probably lose some games badly but you only get better from making mistakes and seeing how well you can play. Learn from those mistakes with a period of four years to get it right. The talent of the team was obvious very early on.”

And all that talk of fault lines on tricky pitches can be put to bed now, too, after they emerged victorious in both the semi-final and final on surfaces which were far from the batting belters on which they dominate. Flat track bullies, yes, but far, far more than that now. “That’s the one thing I said yesterday to some of the coaching staff, that just showed how much these guys have grown over the four years,” Bayliss added.

“In one way, we have been practising for the last three and four years and learning to play on flat decks. There were games where we lost wickets and lost badly on wickets that were doing a little bit. But that’s how much they have grown. They have learnt from those bad games and been able to play some smart cricket and adjust to wickets with a little bit in them. Hopefully that’s put that to rest.”

Ben Stokes is another who might well be feeling relief after his man of the match performance. Relief that the fracas outside a Bristol nightclub two years ago will now be consigned to a footnote in any evaluation of his contribution. In danger then of throwing a career away, he is now a World Cup winner and a – the? – key reason of why his team got over the line. He has worked incredibly hard since that night in Bristol to get himself in this position. And then he delivered on the biggest stage. The narrative has certainly been changed.

“I don’t want this taken out of context but he is a real fighter,” Bayliss said. “What he did yesterday was extraordinary. You can’t stop him at practice. He wants to be involved in absolutely everything. He has a belief in his own ability and the rest of the players have a belief in his ability as well. At some stage that was going to come out and it was just set up for him beautifully.”

Was Bayliss concerned that this day, this redemption, might not come for Stokes? “Not really. The type of bloke he was, if there was one guy who could come back from that sort of adversity, he was the one. I’m really happy he was able to show what he can do on a big stage. His zest for life, he is a leader of people off the field as well and not just on it. He is a guy that a lot of people gravitate to. Everyone in the team is so happy for him.”

Stokes, Root, Bayliss. World Cup winners all of them. “It sounds pretty special, doesn’t it?” Root said. “If you’d said it four years ago, I might not have believed you. But what a journey What a tournament. What a day yesterday was

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