Team Selection: Pujara, Rahane, Kohli … the answer may lie in a different set of numbers

Today I realise I would have dropped Cheteshwar Pujara too. There is an explanation why Ajinkya Rahane is vice captain. There is also a logical reason why the coach and team management keep picking Jadeja over Ashwin. 

This may be a complete waste of time but let me start at the beginning. 

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) recently announced the test squad for the West Indies tour. This was just after the terrible loss of the WTC Final to Australia. I was hopping mad about the way the national men’s cricket team played that final – the loss wasn’t the issue, the manner of play and on-field body language were a matter of grave concern.

I read the various news reports, analysis and opinions in print, broadcast and digital media. As usual, there was (still is) discussion and debate about who has been omitted and who has been picked. In particular, why was Cheteshwar Pujara dropped? Why did the selectors pick Yashasvi Jaiswal and Ruturaj Gaikwad? Why was Sarfaraz Khan not picked? Why is Ashwin always ignored for the playing XI?

So I spent a Saturday evening compiling some information (inning by inning stats). I was confident that Pujara would definitely be in the list of top performers at the end of my research. I was looking for performance of Indian batters in overseas tests, since the BCCI had just announced the squad for a West Indies tour and the recent WTC final was also overseas. (I realised later that therein may reside one reason for the difference in popular performance perception and the Board’s evaluation). 

After gathering and tabulating the stats, I generated various analyses and finally ran a quick comparison to erstwhile stats (great Indian batters overseas). I focused only on batting since I had only a couple of hours to work with. The period I analysed was August 2019 to June 2023 (that’s the last 4 years less a month) and the tests I analysed were those in South Africa, West Indies, England, New Zealand and Australia (let’s call it SWENA). In this period, India played 2 WTC Finals, a 5-test series in England, a 3-test series in South Africa, a 4-test series in Australia, a 2-test series in NZ and a 2-test series in WI – a total of 18 tests (36 innings) in SWENA venues. I did not include home tests or tests in the subcontinent since playing conditions and pitches are more or less similar and most Indian batsmen do well – their healthy averages come from subcontinent tests – which is why domestic performance counts for subcontinent tests. 

For evaluation purposes, I focused only on those batsmen who have played 10 innings or more (have excluded bowlers who bat well once in a while). I created several little tables (Top batsmen by runs scored, average, balls per innings, etc) and also created a table where all batsmen’s data was extrapolated from actual performance to a ‘normal’ of 12 innings. I picked the 12 inning benchmark randomly, the same can also be done with any other number of innings on the scale (between 10 and 36). The idea is to see how every player would perform in 12 innings based on their actual performance history, which gives us an apples-to-apples comparison hierarchy. It was interesting to see that batting averages, and balls per innings did not change significantly from actual performance which means the performance was stable over that period. In real terms, an individual’s performance is usually stable within a range in any job or sport. Sudden spurts or rise in form can be aberrations or an actual growth in skill and therefore a new level of performance.

So here’s what I learned: the BCCI selectors have picked one of the best possible teams for overseas tests under the circumstances. What are the circumstances? 

  1. There is a dearth of batsmen with a good recent track record overseas
  2. Domestic performance is not relevant for overseas tours.
  3. There is lack of international ‘A’ first class matches, which means player development is affected.
  4. Injuries have sidelined some of the best established overseas players

I like Cheteshwar Pujara, always have. He has style, is willing to work hard and apply himself. But I understand why he was dropped. If I look at the performance table, I would have dropped Pujara as well. Mayank Agarwal doesn’t seem to be in contention probably for the same reason – an average below 20 is terrible for batsmen. 

Of the 10 specialist batsmen who played for India (more than 10 innings), Pujara was the only batsman who played all 18 tests and 36 innings, which means he was picked for and played in every overseas test outside the subcontinent. Therefore it is not accurate to think that he has had a raw deal in selection – at least in overseas tests in the past 4 years, he was the numero uno pick. 

Regarding the numbers, his average is 19.4 from those 36 innings. I have not considered unbeaten innings but even if I did, his average would be 19.9 (since he had only 1 Not Out in the 36 innings). He scored 697 runs at a strike rate of 31. Of the 10 specialist batsmen, Pujara is the last or in the bottom quarter on most metrics. The only metric where he was at the top is Balls Faced (2239) which is very important in tests provided that he scored enough runs while at crease, which he didn’t. 

Rahane and Pant scored the most runs. The middle band comprises Kohli, Pujara, KL Rahul, and Rohit Sharma in terms of number of runs. Kohli scored 782 runs to Pujara’s 697 but scored them in 27 innings. Rahul and Rohit Sharma scored 642 and 619 but in half the innings (18 and 16 respectively). And so on. When evaluating performance, one has to consider multiple metrics and across a reasonable duration and correlate across the board. 

Pujara’s case is significant since he has played all 36 innings: apparently the only batsman to have been consistently selected in the team for overseas SWENA test matches since August 2019. At 19.4, Pujara has been nowhere near his career average of 43.6 in the last 36 overseas innings.  

I don’t think this is the end of the road for Pujara. He is resilient and needs to get back into top form for selectors to consider him again.

At the moment, Rohit Sharma is our top batsman, followed closely by KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant, both of whom are out due to injury. The top 3 are consistent across parameters but they are best only among India’s batsmen – an average in the high 30’s is not really something to brag about. In test cricket, the first thing I would look at is balls faced because the longer you stay at the crease, the better you settle and can score. The next thing I would like at is average and finally total runs scored. Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul have similar stays per innings while Rishabh Pant faces significantly lower number of balls per innings but his average is close to the two openers and his strike rate is higher – he scores faster. 

Below these three are 5 batsmen whose performances are close to each others’ in the past 4 years: Rahane, Vihari, Kohli, Gill, and Jadeja. (I don’t know why Hanuma Vihari is not in contention). Leading this pack is Rahane. Rahane and Kohli have scored more runs because they have played significantly more innings. In fact, if I consider that Gill, Kohli and Rahane are top-order batsmen, and looking at performance in the period, I would pick Rahane and Jadeja automatically, as also Kohli since he has a track record of pulling himself out of slumps and Gill would come in depending on pitch and fitness etc. Rahane is a good vice captain choice at the moment given his experience, runs scored, average, but specially his recent turnaround in approach and calmness in match conditions.

Why aren’t they picking Sarfaraz Khan? For subcontinent tests, he should be picked based on domestic record. For overseas tours, I guess there is no track record (but then how will he get a track record if he doesn’t get selected?). 

Why have they picked Jaiswal and Ruturaj. No idea. But there must be some logic. Jaiswal and Ruturaj definitely seem more assured and at home facing international pace bowlers, but that’s in the IPL. And in a rapidly changing world, why is it a bad thing to consider IPL performance when evaluating temperament? It’s the only tournament where uncapped and capped Indian players are playing with the best of international cricketers. Performance, behaviour under pressure, technique, temperament are all visible in plain sight. Test cricket has already changed and if you are following the Ashes, you’ll see the strike rates, shot selection, temperament and it’s moving on from batting two days to batting as long and as fast and as whatever it takes.

I believe the top three overseas batsmen for India have been Tendulkar (54.74), Dravid (53.03), and Gavaskar 52.11). Dravid is the coach of India and we have to give it time to see how he develops a robust team that has batting depth in actual performance. 

Like many others, I also get caught up with the Ashwin-Jadeja debate. (And I like both since they have different approaches and strengths). But I learned that Jadeja has scored 551 runs in 20 innings batting in overseas tests in the past 4 years and taken 26 wickets in 24 innings bowling. Ashwin has scored 200 in 15 innings and taken 22 wickets. Taken in the perspective of batting performances overseas (South Africa, WI, England Australia), Jadeja is our Number 8 batsman by average abd balls per inning (he knows how to stay at the crease patiently), Number 7 by runs scored and Number 3 by strike rate (scores fast). Jadeja is the better test performer overseas in the past 4 years. I get why the team management picks him again and again for overseas tests because as wicket-taking bowlers they are 12% apart in terms of wickets per innings. Although I would rather play Jadeja and Ashwin alongside 3 pacers instead of picking a fourth medium pacer.

I am happy that Umran Malik has been picked for the ODIs. Would have been great if they had picked him for the tests too so that he could get some real exposure for the long format.

Overall I think sports journalists, bloggers, and common folk alike ought to consider that the BCCI and its management teams take their jobs seriously. If I have to question or criticise, I think the least I should do is to look at the performance data first. I may not agree with their choices but they are in the hot seat. The board is responsible for bringing Indian cricket to the heights we see now and they got the country here by taking measured decisions and patiently building infrastructure and leveraging human capital. Any dip performance will eventually hit the national team’s credibility and therefore the board’s balance sheet. 

One comment

  1. Anindya

    I feel the contention was never b/w Jadeja and Ashwin (atleast for WTC Final). It was necessary to play both Ashwin and Jadeja as Oval is the pitch with maximum support to spinners.

    The pitch also, supports reverse swing. Umesh Yadav is a proven Reverse Swing specialist. Shami no doubt enters the team along with Siraj who has that skiddy-ness to his bowling along with that pace, length and a much improved line.

    The thing was to keep Shardul on the bench. He is no a genuine all-rounder who can definitely bat better (than Ashwin as he wasn’t picked) and has mystical powers in bowling to break partnerships. But the choice was to make b/w a better batsman and a 400+ wicket taker on a spin friendly pitch!!!

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