KL Rahul being picked for India’s Test team for the tour to Australia has produced mixed reactions. Some are of the opinion that picking him devalues the first-class structure because the selection seems to be a reward for his white-ball performances. A few, like me, believe it was only a matter of time before he got a call up for the longer format again. In fact, the absence of Rohit Sharma on the tour to New Zealand early in the year could have been an ideal comeback series for Rahul.
Rahul’s Test career stats read: 36 Tests, 2006 runs at 34.5, with five centuries. While these aren’t great numbers, they aren’t abysmal either. The fact that four of those Test centuries have come when he batted as an opener away from home perhaps adds a little more weight to the numbers.
The other side of the story is equally compelling: the fact that he lost his place in Tests after a series of low scores; that there were clear patterns developing in his modes of dismissal that only accentuated his problems.
Initially he nicked a lot of deliveries outside off – a common problem when the head isn’t on top of off stump, and one that is highlighted more when it happens to an opener. When Rahul tried to correct that, he started going far too across in an attempt to play outside the line of the ball, and ended up getting trapped in front of the stumps. It was obvious that he was trying extremely hard to address the issues, but sometimes the harder you try to get out of a quagmire, the deeper you sink.
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Sachin Tendulkar wrote in his book that a batsman is at his best when his mind is at the opposite end – for that’s where what you have to counter comes from. There’s truth in that: when you focus on your head, feet and hands while standing in your stance, you are guaranteed to be late on the ball. Rahul, like a lot of batsmen going through poor form, was mentally stuck at his end. Lack of runs meant that he was dropped from the Test side, and what started as a very promising Test career, with a hundred in only his second Test, in Australia, threatened to be over well before time.
When he wasn’t appearing for India in white flannels, Rahul kept scoring runs elsewhere. He started out as middle-order batsman in T20 cricket but found his real mojo in the format as an opener. He has become the first Indian to score 500-plus runs in three consecutive IPL seasons. He took over keeping duties in limited-overs internationals to fill in for Rishabh Pant, and adapted to the new role of finishing the innings. In fact, he has been India’s standout batsman in white-ball cricket over the last couple of years – both for consistency and impact. But is that enough for a call-up to the Test team?
Let me share a story from my life here. The Indian selectors picked 24 probables for India’s tour to Australia in 2007. Wasim Jaffer, Gautam Gambhir and I were on that list. Virender Sehwag had had a very ordinary 2006 as a Test player, and two poor years as an ODI player, and he had been dropped for both formats. He went back to playing for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy to regain form and stake a claim again. Unfortunately, the runs didn’t come in first-class cricket too – his scores in the games running up to selection for the Australia series were 16, 0, 9, 32 and 9. He was so woefully out of form that he told the national selector who had come to watch one of our games to pick Gambhir and me, and to not pick him because he was out of form. That’s what you expect from Sehwag – honesty.
Then Gambhir got injured and was ruled out of the tour. There were only two openers left on the list, Jaffer and I. My selection was almost guaranteed, but in the end the selectors in consultation with the captain, Anil Kumble, went for Sehwag.
The selection didn’t make cricketing sense because Sehwag hadn’t earned his place back. I was the guy who paid the price for the gamble that the team took. As often happens with players of Sehwag’s calibre, he went on to score a hundred, in Adelaide, and did not look back since. He scored his second 300 in Tests a couple of months after.
I can be forgiven for holding a grudge over something that didn’t seem fair at that point in time. But was there merit in the selectors picking Sehwag without domestic runs or form behind him? History would suggest that the gamble was worth taking, for Sehwag went on to achieve things that I probably would not have done despite my best efforts. Sehwag was a special player and perhaps deserved special treatment.
Before going back to Rahul, let’s look at the other possible contenders for the opening spot in Tests now. Also, please bear in mind that these are extraordinary times and a lot of cricketers haven’t played any competitive cricket for eight months or more. The series against South Africa at home last year seemed like a good time for both Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran to be given an opportunity to open in Tests, but the selectors chose Rohit Sharma instead. And as they say, the rest is history. Sharma piled up the runs and closed the window of opportunity for the domestic performers. Since then, Panchal’s numbers have declined. Abhinav Mukund was the most prolific opener in the last domestic season, with Easwaran second on the list. Considering that both haven’t played a first-class game for a while, what were the realistic chances either would be picked for the tour to Australia? In the ideal world, Sharma, Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw would be the first-choice openers and Shubman Gill would have been in the squad as back-up. With Sharma’s injury and the lack of clarity about how well or not he is recovering, the selectors had to pick another opener in the side. If it was only about IPL numbers, they would have toyed with the idea of reinstating Shikhar Dhawan too.
I must say here that the comparison with Sehwag was just to draw a parallel, but Rahul too is the kind of player who demands a bit more investment. His technical game is intact even when he is scoring at a rate of knots in the shortest format. His game has no obvious flaws that might make him susceptible to the trials of Test match cricket. Whether he will make it big in Test cricket or not, we will find out in good time, but there is merit in getting him back in whites. Players with his quality of skills and talent will get more opportunities than the rest, and while it might seem unfair at the time, like it felt to me in 2007, it might be the right decision for Indian cricket.
What if the team management dropped Sharma after he had middling returns in the middle order, ending his Test career without allowing him a shot as an opener? What if Sehwag’s return had been delayed till he got runs on the first-class circuit back in 2007? What if Virat Kohli had been asked to go back to play first-class cricket to regain form after the tour to England in 2014?
While I completely feel for the guys, like me back then, who are at the wrong end of these selections, I can now also understand why some players deserve and get an extra chance or two. Rahul has been given another shot at the longest format. Let’s hope he seizes it with both hands.