Sidharth Monga in Melbourne
These Boxing Day Tests are a strange time. In the lead-up to perhaps the biggest Test of the year, that needle and anticipation a day out from the Test is often missing. The intensity at the nets is low. Families are around. Everybody is in a hurry to lock up the stadium after finishing off the press conferences. There is nothing to suggest 80,000 people will walk in through the turnstiles for arguably their biggest sporting day of the year. People tend to turn contemplative.
Justin Langer, the Australia coach, spoke the other day of how he invariably – as a coach – has to ruin somebody’s Christmas by telling him he is not playing, and make it for someone who is playing. Amid all the magic family and festival create, there are these difficult decisions to make. “It’s a bit sad,” Langer said. It would have been much more difficult for Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri this time around. They have made big calls.
For the first time in long memory, they have announced an XI a day out from the Test. Only for the second time in their history, India are handing out a debut to an opener in Australia. For the first time in their history, they will have two openers in Australia with no experience of opening the innings.
For one of them, this is a Christmas gift well-earned after scoring thousands and thousands of first-class runs. It is a gift that almost never arrived. Mayank Agarwal was part of the Test squad against West Indies, a sign that India were ready to move on from the ones that had failed in England, but then when it came to the big tour, Agarwal was left out of the squad. Just as the Grinch was making away with it, Prithvi Shaw has injured himself, the other openers have hit a rut, and it is almost like there is nothing to lose at the top.
The man Agarwal replaces is a good friend of his, who made his debut at the same place in the same setting four years ago. It was a nervous debut for KL Rahul, who fell to two nervous shots. Perhaps Rahul will be able to tell Agarwal he needs to give himself more time. “I was playing to their pace,” Rahul told ESPNcricinfo of that debut. There is always more time than you think. Even if you have to walk out to face the first ball. It is actually better because your side wants to bat first.
Just like Rahul four years ago, the other opener is now batting out of position. Rahul, an opener, batted in the middle order in India’s last Boxing Day Test, transitioned back into opening, has once been tried as No. 3, then back to opening, and now, as if to complete a cycle, he is dropped for this Boxing Day Test. To Hanuma Vihari, who will be opening with Agarwal, this is almost not a gift. He has done nothing to deserve to be pushed out of his middle-order station. Then again, if Rohit Sharma has to be accommodated, the only slot remaining is at the top. And having batted at No. 3 most often in domestic cricket, Vihari is the man most suited to make the sacrifice.
And Vihari will have at least two men around him to tell him what a big opportunity it is if you stand up when the team is in desperate need. Shastri, Vihari’s coach, made the big turnaround in his career when he grabbed the chance with both hands when Sunil Gavaskar came knocking on his door with his other openers either not fit or not good enough. MSK Prasad, Vihari’s chief selector and also an important figure at his home state Andhra, was asked to open the innings on a tour of Australia in 1999-2000.
That proved to be Prasad’s last Test. “I always believe it was an opportunity given to me, which I didn’t live up to,” Prasad says now. He believes Vihari has the goods to live up to his opportunity. “It’s fine,” he says if this is unfair on Vihari. “Technically we feel that he is well equipped, there were times where [Cheteshwar] Pujara also opened when the team required. The team demands it, and definitely I hope he will come out successful.”
Unlike in his own career, Prasad is there to make sure Vihari is not judged adversely if he fails when answering this SOS call. “Definitely it is not a long-term solution, I can tell you that,” Prasad says. “Definitely. We are convinced with his technique, and definitely he is a long-term prospect for Indian Test cricket.”
And so we have a tour where India came with three specialist openers and a wicketkeeper, who travelled as a reserve opener, but two Tests in, there are two new openers, who could have had better preparation. If Shaw’s injury had been diagnosed better, Agarwal could have acclimatised better. If Vihari was batting at his usual slot, he would be in his comfort zone. And yet it is out of these challenges that you can sometimes make yourself a career. It is not ideal, but if the team has nothing to lose, neither do these openers.