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AUS vs IND: India's opening conundrum - Who should open in the first Test against Australia?

Virat Kohli-led Indian side is set to begin its title defence of the Border-Gavaskar trophy with the pink-ball Test in Adelaide from December 17.

Ameya Barve Ameya Barve @ameya_2112
New Delhi Updated on: December 12, 2020 17:13 IST
Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw
Image Source : AP

Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw

4th October 2018 --  Prithvi Shaw, 18 back then, lived up to the hype of being the next big thing in Indian cricket. Breaking a plethora of records on his Test debut at Rajkot, Shaw slammed a brilliant 99-ball ton against West Indies, becoming the youngest-ever Indian player to achieve this feat. 

It was also the third-fastest ton by any batsman on his Test debut. One could easily make an analogy between Shaw and Tendulkar at that point of time, considering the former was only a year late in etching his name into the list of youngest Test centurions for the country. While Tendulkar had notched up his maiden Test hundred at the age of 17 years and 107 days, Shaw sparkled at 18 years and 329 days.

Shaw ended up scoring a 154-ball 134 against the Windies and walked back while acknowledging the applause from the crowd and his teammates. But little did he know at the time, how soon the moment will turn out to be a poignant memory of yesteryear. Cut to 2020 and it's a totally different ballgame for the 21-year-old Mumbaikar. 

From inadvertently ingesting a prohibited substance (terbutaline) to a lacklustre IPL 2020, Shaw has endured a barren run in the past couple of years, raising questions over his place as on opener in the national set-up especially when KL Rahul has been a multi-purpose option in front of the team management.
After registering a duck in the first practice game against Australia A last week, Shaw hit a flurry of boundaries and gathered a 29-ball 40 before Will Sutherland knocked off his woodwork. It's been that kind of year for Shaw. He may have impressed with a few good shots but he's nowhere close to being the forerunner for the opening spot in any format. A humdrum patch with the bat isn't just Shaw's concern, but a puzzle for the team management too.
Prithvi Shaw in IPL 2020 Innings Runs Strike-rate Average High score
13 228 136.52 17.53 66
Prithvi Shaw's Test record Matches Runs Average High score
4 335 55.83 134
A two-horse race between Shaw and Gill
After enduring the middle-order conundrum, the Indian team, at present, is in a tumultuous state with its opening combination ahead of the much-anticipated Test series which is less than a week away from its commencement. Virat Kohli-led Indian side is set to begin its title defence of the Border-Gavaskar trophy with the pink-ball Test in Adelaide from December 17.
India may have redeemed themselves by winning the T20I series but the red-ball affair will be unchartered territory, especially for Indian batsmen who've not been at their best against Australia in the white-ball series. With Shikhar Dhawan's absence from the Test set-up and Rohit Sharma's unavailability for the first two games, the team management will be scratching its head before narrowing down to a reliable opening duo. Skipper Kohli's departure will only make things worse.

India's success in the all-important Test series will depend a lot on their opening combination, which currently is in troubled waters due to cramped options. The recent form of the Shaw-Gill adds salt to the wound. Both the youngsters, touted to eventually become an integral part of India's batting force, registered ducks against Australia A in the first warm-game, giving rise to doubts over their ability to perform against a potent Aussie bowling unit.

Though the pair redeemed itself in the second warm-up game by scoring 40 (Shaw) and 43 (Gill) in the first innings, the opposition bowling camp was without its regular faces -- Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc.

Shubman Gill in practice matches against Australia Innings Runs Half-centuries High score
4 137 1 65

Agarwal's dependability

The patchy form of Gill and Shaw, however, has been a blessing in disguise for Mayank Agarwal. Following a stellar IPL 2020, the Karnataka lad will be shouldering the responsibility of boosting India's top order. He might've failed to leave his mark in the ODI series but his Test records against Australia puts him as the leading contender to open in the Adelaide.
Along with having more experience than Gill and Shaw combined, Mayank has two half-centuries to his name against the Aussies. On his Test debut in the Boxing Day Test back in 2018, Mayank had slammed a 76-run knock, becoming the second Indian to score a half-century on debut Down Under.

Among the three available options, Mayank is the only one who has the experience of playing against Australia in Australia. In two Tests on the Australian soil, he has gathered 195 runs including two 70+ knocks. His overall red-ball expeditions are even better. In 11 Tests so far, Mayank has scored 974 runs at an average of 57.29 and three hundreds, making his selection in Adelaide Test a no-brainer.

Though it would be bizarre to link his IPL performances here, the fact that majority of Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) runs were scored by him and Rahul is impressive. Mayank finished his IPL season with 424 runs which included a ton and two half-centuries.

With that being said, Mayank would most certainly be donning the opener's role in the first Test. Shaw was assigned the opening duties with Mayank in the second warm-up game and Gill was slotted at the No.3 position. However, after Rahul and Kohli's return in the playing XI, the team might've to shuffle things up. Considering Rahul's purple patch and ability to fulfil any role, he might be asked to open the innings if the team decides to go with the in-form Mayank-Rahul duo.

Mayank Agarwal against Australia in Australia Innings Runs Average High score
3 335 55.83 77

Similar to Mayank, Rahul also has the experience of donning the whites against Australia. In 9 games against the Kangaroos, he has scored 580 runs at an average of 38.66, including a ton. However, his last five innings against Australia have been gloomy where he's managed to chalk up just 57 runs. Rahul's woeful form back then even led to him losing the opener's spot to Rohit. Relatively inexperienced Shaw may have a better average than Rahul in Tests but the latter's recent form might earn him a Test opener spot, especially if the team management goes down the unexpected route.

Talking about Shaw's Test records in his short yet eventful stint with the national side, he has gathered 335 runs in four matches with the help of a century against West Indies. However, after notching up 237 runs in his debut two-Test series against Windies, Shaw hasn't looked himself. In his last Test assignment against the Kiwis in New Zealand, he managed to score just 98 in 2 matches. Shaw's abysmal stint with Delhi Capitals (DC) this year adds to his woes. Contrary to expectations, in 13 this season, Shaw scored 228 runs at a meagre 17.53 average.

If India decides to restore their faith in Shaw -- which they've done in warm-up games -- he is likely to get a go-ahead to open the innings with Mayank, with Gill either missing out or pushed down the batting order. Gill, however, can't be ruled out from the openers' race.  
He's been the best batsman in India A Test matches, scoring 970 runs in eight unofficial matches since 2018. Though the Punjab rookie is yet to earn his India Test cap, he had scored 136 as an opener against New Zealand A in February, the last unofficial Test he played. Shrugging off his duck from the first practice game at Drummoyne Oval, Gill scored 43 and 65 in the second, making the opening slot's riddle more complex, at least for the selectors.

"I am still split about Mayank Agarwal's opening partner. I feel because Prithvi Shaw has scored at least these many runs and had also played decently in the last Test match against New Zealand, the balance looks to be tilted slightly towards him," said Aakash Chopra on his YouTube channel.

Vihari's impressive form

Not to forget, India also have a fourth back-up option -- Hanuma Vihari -- who had opened alongside Mayank in Melbourne during the last tour. The Andhra batsman averages 22.20 against Australia, having scored just 111 runs in five innings. Vihari, however, has justified his selection by slamming a brilliant century in the warm-up game at the SCG, throwing his hat in the race of India's Test opening slot.

"Obviously, as a player, I will be prepared to bat anywhere. As of now, I have not been informed anything but if the team requests me to bat wherever in the order I'm ready to," Vihari had told during India's tour of New Zealand, earlier this year. In Hardik's truancy and injury concerns, Vihari also can be a handy bowling option who can chip in with a few overs from one end.

Leaving Rishabh Pant out won't be an easy decision, as he had put up an impressive show when India toured Australia in 2018-19 and even belted a century in the second warm-up match. On the bowling front, Ravichandran Ashwin is expected to be India's first-choice spinner, while Bumrah, Shami and Umesh Yadav are expected to hone the pace attack.

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