India’s future in Test cricket shaped by Pujara and Gill’s partnership
As the era of Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri came to a close, India was preparing for a shift in their Test team. The 2021 series against England marked the end of this journey for many players, including Ishant Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, R Ashwin, Rohit Sharma, and Ravindra Jadeja. These players had undergone significant changes throughout their careers and it was now time for them to step aside and make way for new talent.
Unlike the bowling unit, India’s cricketing ecosystem tends to give a lot more time to its batsmen. After all, it is a country that celebrates the batsmen more than the bowlers, where for kids picking up the game, the advice from the senior most in the household is ‘score centuries beta.’ But as Pujara and Rahane were struggling like never before and with the likes of Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw in the mix, you could see what Kohli and Shastri were thinking.
Of course, neither were around in their position by the year-end, but India have already taken a transition route in Tests. Ishant and Rahane are not around anymore. And when Pujara was dropped for the home Tests against Sri Lanka alongside Rahae, it looked like the end of the road.
Yet, here he is. A successful county stint with Sussex put him back in the team and in his second Test since return, showed there still plenty left in his tank as he brought up his 19th Test century on Day Three of the Chattogram Test against Bangladesh. His first three-figure mark in 52 innings – the last one coming in 2019 against Australia at Sydney – was his fastest, coming off 130 deliveries (13×4) and maiden Test century from Shubman Gill (104) meant India took full control as the Test headed for an early finish on Saturday.
Set a target of 513, Bangladesh were 42/0 at stumps on Day Three. There may not be much to take home about Gill’s and Pujara’s century against a Bangladesh attack that struggled to pose any challenge. But in terms of the bigger picture, with a new selection panel set to come in, it offers a breathing space for India at least in one format. Unlike the whiteball, there is little to do with the Test team. There is a good pool of pacers. Behind Ashwin and Jadeja, there are Washington Sundar, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav and Saurabh Kumar. And the same in case of batting too as Gill showed on Friday via an emphatic maiden Test century.
More than the bowling, when it comes to transition, it is the batting unit that usually takes time. If they are straight away air dropped on overseas conditions, it can get challenging. This is why India wanted to give the likes of Gill and Iyer a cushion of familiarity, before the overseas challenge. Gill has already shown in Australia that he is one to count on in the future and could easily be the face of the next gen batting unit like what Kohli is to the current team.
The only question with regards to Gill is where he bats. There is a school of thought within the team management that Gill is more suited at No 3 or No 4. With India having no dearth of options when it comes to the opening slot, and the case being the opposite for middle-order, Gill’s future in the Test team may be at No 3 or 4. In fact, before Pujara made a comeback earlier this year, with Rohit and KL Rahul around, India were looking at Gill at No 3 alongside Hanuma Vihari. But with the Hyderabad batsman no longer in the scheme of things, Gill’s role could well be in the middle, especially if one takes into account his ability to handle pace and spin with equal ease.
With the current World Test Championship cycle ending next June, the incoming selection panel and the team management have a few definite calls to make. In the next WTC cycle (2023-25), they start with two away tours – West Indies in July and South Africa in December before they face England, Bangladesh and New Zealand at home and tour Australia only towards the end of 2024-25 season.
Those three home series are pertinent going forward, as the Test specialists are unlikely to be around the time next WTC cycle finishes. Rohit is struggling with fitness and there is no guarantee he would be a regular in the Test side beyond the next WTC cycle. It leaves India with Pujara, Kohli in the batting unit to shepherd the next batch of batsmen, when the next WTC cycle begins. With England showing the world a different approach to play Tests, others will explore similar brand and if India doesn’t press the reset button, they may lose out in a format they injected plenty of life into since 2015.