The last time India were forced to give a Test debut to a player before the Covid-19 pandemic was when Rohit Sharma injured himself as captain MS Dhoni was walking out for the toss in Nagpur in 2010. It was a particularly controversial selection because Dhoni was given just the six batters in a 15-member squad, which would ensure India had no option but to give a Test cap to S Badrinath, who had been on the bench for a while. When VVS Laxman was unwell a day before the match, India were lucky Rohit was in Nagpur for a domestic match and called him up.
When Rohit tripped over and was ruled out minutes before the toss, India were forced to play Wriddhiman Saha as a specialist batter. Not having Hanuma Vihari in India is not quite the face-off that 2010 was, but there doesn't seem to have been great coordination between the selectors and the team management regarding this.
On the face of it - and the India selectors for some reason are not allowed to explain their decisions anymore - it seems such a last-minute injury scenario was a risk the selectors were willing to take when they sent Vihari for the South Africa A tour instead. It seemed they anyway wanted to try Shubman Gill in the middle order for the one Test that Virat Kohli would miss so it was better off letting Vihari gain some experience in South Africa instead of warming the bench in India.
The worst-case scenario has now materialised in that the injured batter is an opener, KL Rahul. It means Gill will have to make his comeback as an opener, leaving stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane no choice but to give Shreyas Iyer a Test debut when Vihari would have deserved what would have been only his second home Test much more. It would have been different in the case of Gill playing ahead of Vihari because that seems a direction India want to take.
The selectors will hopefully be on the phone with Vihari as soon as the day's play ends in Bloemfontein, but for the team management in Kanpur, there are more immediate concerns. They are left with just three batters with more than ten Tests' experience. One of them is Mayank Agarwal, who is making a comeback to the opening slot after he was dropped in Australia.
The other two, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane, you have to believe, must be under some pressure. Rahane is averaging under 25 over the last 15 Tests with one century. At home, he has averaged 18.66 in four Tests in this period. Pujara is averaging under 29 over his last 22 Tests and he hasn't scored a century. His average of 32.25 in nine home Tests in this period is a cause for concern.
Two days before the Test, Pujara said he and Rahane were both batting well without the results to show for it. "I have been scoring runs, 50-80-90, not centuries, but I am not worried about my scores," Pujara said. "As long as I keep batting well and as long as I keep contributing to the team's total, I am happy with that. The century will happen when it has to happen but my focus is to prepare well and bat well. As long as I am doing that, the big one is around the corner."
Pujara also said that Rahane was looking good in the nets. "He is a great player," Pujara said. "I think there are times when a player goes through tough times. That is part of this game. There will be ups and downs but I feel he is a confident player, he is someone who works hard on his game, and I am very sure he is just one innings way. Once he gets a big score, once he gets a big hundred, he will be back in form. He has been working hard in the nets. I have seen the way he has been batting. He is in good touch, and hoping that he will score big runs in this game."
If Rahul Dravid has taken over a side not already in transition, he has to start thinking of it at least. And when you talk batting transition, these are the first two names that roll off the tongue. As of now, though, Dravid and India will need big runs from them, the captain and the vice-captain of the side for the first Test.
There might be a temptation, especially with Rishabh Pant not there to shore up the batting, to play an extra batter to cover up for an inexperienced line-up. On the face of it, it goes against the ethos of the side that Ravi Shastri and Kohli built - not to mention further heartbreak for Vihari if two batters debut ahead of him - but at the end of the day the decision should be made keeping in mind what is best for India and not any statement of aggression.
The conditions will probably dictate the final selection now. If the pitch is a turner from day one, India might just play the extra batter and sacrifice a third spinner or a second fast bowler. If it is not a square turner, they might play five bowlers. It is a situation that everybody will feel was avoidable and hope it serves as a reminder of the need for coordination without costing them too much.