The England tour will be the second big overseas ‘test’ for Virat Kohli’s men since climbing to the top of the ICC Test rankings. The side were beaten 2-1 in South Africa in a hard-fought three-match Test series earlier this year.
Expectations will be high when Kohli’s men land on English shores. While expectations will be high, the scrutiny will be intense as well.
One particular batsman who will be under the spotlight, apart from the skipper, is Cheteshwar Pujara. While the top-order batsman remains almost unshakable in subcontinent conditions, his performance overseas in the past few years has left plenty to be desired.
The Rajkot batsman was earmarked as a special Test talent early in his domestic career. When he did get his break at the Test level, it seemed that the side had finally found a replacement for Rahul Dravid. As he smashed a superb 153 in the second innings against South Africa at Johannesburg in 2013, it looked liked the Indian team had a new ‘wall’ to lean on.
However, Pujara has been unable to sustain that early promise overseas. The 30-year-old has registered three more overseas tons since but all of them have come against Sri Lanka in familiar subcontinent tracks.
While Pujara has a healthy average of over 50 after 58 Tests for India, his away record outside Asian conditions is dismal with an average of 27 in 20 Tests.
Ever since that mammoth 153 against South Africa, the right-hander struck just four fifties outside Asia. This includes a run of 17 Tests against the likes of New Zealand, England, Australia and South Africa.
In India’s last overseas tour against South Africa at the start of the year, Pujara had scores of 26, 4, 19, 50 and 1. These are hardly confidence-building knocks from the team’s No3 batsman.
When it comes to his record on English shores, the numbers make even more dreadful reading for Pujara. In the five-Test series in 2014, the right-hander scored 222 runs from 10 innings at an average of 22.2.
His last five Test innings in England – 2, 0, 17, 4 and 11 – make for more sorry reading and he does not inspire confidence on a long and grueling away tour.
Pujara did make the right move by signing up for a county stint with Yorkshire earlier this year. However, things haven’t gone according to plan there. While he did play some excellent knocks in the List A One-Day Cup, Pujara’s form in the first-class competition in England was horrendous. The batsman could only muster 100 runs in eight innings for the county heavyweights as he struggled to come to grips with the swinging Duke ball.
In Afghanistan’s inaugural Test in Bengaluru recently, Pujara was demoted to the No4 position in the batting order to make way for KL Rahul. There too, he struggled to impose himself on the Afghan bowlers despite Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay setting up the perfect platform for him to flourish.
Pujara looks a shadow of the batsman who was resisting the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in 2013. The England series could be make or break Pujara’s Test career. At the age of 30, another series of overseas failures could put a big question mark over his future in Tests and he could soon be labeled another ‘flat-track bully’.
The hosts ultimately squared up the two-match series with an innings win in Headingley. However, the visitors can take a lot of comfort from their performances over the course of the series against England and the one-off Test against Ireland.
While the performances of young Shadab Khan, pacers Mohammad Abbas and Hasan Ali were highly encouraging, those of the skipper himself left plenty to be desired.
2018 has not been the kindest to Sarfraz who started the year brightly with some excellent innings in the T20I series against New Zealand. It has been in the five-day format that the 31-year-old has been found wanting with some uninspiring performances on the tours of Ireland and England.
Sarfraz failed to fire with the bat in each and every match which included three Tests and three warm-up first-class matches. In eight innings, the right-hander managed to score only 88 runs at a measly average of 11.
More than the Pakistan skipper’s lack of runs, it has been the manner of some of his dismissals which has been the frustrating aspect of his batting. In the one-off Test against Ireland at Dublin, Sarfraz was guilty of throwing away his wicket against Stuart Thompson in the first innings with a careless glide straight into the hands of second slip during a crucial juncture of the match. He perished while attempting to play a pull shot off the same bowler in the second innings to give Ireland a sniff of a famous victory.
In the Lord’s win over England, the Pakistan captain once again threw away his wicket at a crucial stage with a baffling shot-selection. With the visitors four wickets down and Babar Azam retired hurt, Sarfraz was unable to resist the temptation of going for the hook and paid the price as he could only miscue a Mark Wood short-ball into the hands of fine-leg. The shake of disgust from coach Mickey Arthur in the dressing room as Sarfraz made his way back to the pavilion said it all.
The senior Pakistan man has been shown up with the bat by youngsters Shadab and Faheem Ashraf who are making their first baby-steps in Test cricket. The former went on to register three half-centuries in the three Tests while the latter too put in some promising displays with both bat and ball.
In a squad filled with fresh faces and high on inexperience, the seniors in the Pakistan side, including Sarfraz, need to step up their performances if they want to usher in a new era post the retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan.
As the tour of England and Ireland has shown, the Pakistan squad have all the makings of a great Test team. An excellent pace attack along with an exciting all-round spinner in Shadab has been backed by some encouraging batting displays from Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam and Haris Sohail.
It is time for Sarfraz to now lead by example if he wants to truly fill in the boots of Misbah and Co.
You couldn’t blame them either. After a disappointing start to the 2018 campaign, RCB nearly pulled off an unlikely escape to reach the play-offs only for their batsmen to crumble under the pressure when a result was needed. All their hard work went down the drain and will now reflect back on the last six weeks with only themselves to blame.
Unsurprisingly, Virat Kohli got his fair share of the blame and was deemed an easy target considering he is the captain. And while every win relieved the pressure just a little, it would intensify following a defeat amid another chorus of echoes for the Indian batsman to step down.
He never did and shouldn’t do so anytime soon. Yes, he may have wished he had done things differently – he has had a major input in the personnel, while someone like Moeen Ali was held back for too long – but you only have to look at his stint with India to know why it would be a mistake for him to be replaced.
But there’s one man who should be and that is Daniel Vettori. As head coach, he will be the first to admit to take full responsibility for a disastrous campaign. It is the third time in his five years that RCB have failed to progress to the play-offs. Appointed as Ray Jennings’ successor in 2014, the announcement may have raised eyebrows, but at the time the former New Zealand bowler was no stranger to the RCB set-up.
Donning the red jersey as a player since 2011, he went on to captain the franchise before calling it quits for good two years later. Of course, it was his first coaching job since retiring, but every aspiring coach has to start from somewhere and with his playing pedigree and knowledge, the RCB owners did not hesitate to give him the position.
After a difficult debut season where they finished seventh, the signs were that progress was being made after finishing third in 2015 before going one step better with a runners-up finish in 2016. But they took a giant step backwards 12 months later, finishing bottom of the table in a season that all RCB fans will want to forget. And despite their resurgent form of three wins in their last four games, it was too little, too late as they finished in sixth position in 2018.
His record of 31 wins and 40 losses in his 75 matches might not seem too alarming, especially considering the vagaries of T20 cricket, but if you take into account the form of the previous two seasons and compare it to Chennai Super Kings, who were not part of the competition due to their two-year suspension, then it does ring alarm bells.
In that period, RCB won nine games altogether (three in 2017 and six in 2018), while Chennai have the same record from just 14 matches this season.
Even Gary Kirsten, RCB’s batting coach, joked that “it’s quite nice being an assistant coach because I might be the second guy who might get fired and not the first one (Daniel Vettori).”
And even though he implied it was a joke, Vettori should seriously be thinking whether he has a future with the franchise. Kohli, AB de Villiers and Sarfaraz Khan were the only three retained for this season as the team went through a major overhaul and the 39-year-old would have played a key role in identifying the talent that would bolster his squad in January’s auction.
With the likes of Brendon McCullum, Quinton de Kock, Chris Woakes, Washington Sundar, Moeen Ali and Umesh Yadav, it seemed they had on paper that balance with the bat and ball. Instead it was a balance between hit and miss.
Perhaps why Vettori has avoided the flak is because in a format like T20, the captain plays a big role in team selection and match strategies and if it goes wrong, they often pay the price. Just ask Gautam Gambhir having stepped down as Delhi Daredevils skipper earlier this year. And when Vettori meets his RCB players again in 11 months’ time for the start of the 2019 edition, the current campaign will be history.
If Vettori had been in charge of one of the top international teams – England, Australia or even New Zealand – there would be growing pressure for the ex-spinner to step down or be sacked.
The IPL should be no different. It’s up to the RCB owners whether enough is enough but they shouldn’t need to look far if they wield the axe. Kirsten seems the right choice to succeed should he not mind being in the firing line again. He knows how to get the best of his talented players and make them competitive – just ask any Indian fan and their memories of the 2011 World Cup.