“We are going to try him out at No. 4 in this series. He is too good a player to sit out. Because Shikhar (Dhawan) and Rohit (Sharma, the openers) are in very good form, that’s what we saw in the Champions Trophy, we will start with him in that particular order.”
Thus spake MSK Prasad, the chairman of the Indian senior selection panel, in Pallekele on August 14, a day after the Indian squad for the limited-overs leg of the Sri Lankan tour had been announced.
Unless he is carrying an injury that is being carefully concealed, that is a pretty baffling predicament; you can’t score runs sitting outside, and yet, it is this precise lack of runs that seems to be hurting Rahul’s prospects. Unless too, of course, there is a grand plan that we are not privy to.
The reference was to KL Rahul, the wonderfully gifted right-hand batsman from Karnataka who, this time last year, had become the youngest and the quickest to score international hundreds in all three formats. Rahul has been in a particularly rich vein of form in Test cricket, making six half-centuries in seven innings against the Australians in February-March and following it up with fifties in both his appearances in Sri Lanka in August after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder in the interim.
And yet, a month and a half after Prasad’s pronouncement, the 25-year-old’s One-Day International career is at the crossroads. The move to drop him down the order was jettisoned after three Akila Dananjaya-inspired failures in Sri Lanka, and while Rahul was a part of the squad that crushed Australia 4-1 at home, all he did was ferry drinks, and occasionally come on as a substitute fielder.
Rahul, one hopes, has been spoken to by Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri, if not by Prasad himself. From ‘too good a player’, he can’t have become surplus overnight. Those three failures in Sri Lanka – 4 (at No. 3), 17 (No. 4) and 7 (No. 5) – were the first time he was not opening the batting in ODI cricket. To be put out to pasture must be a chastening and unfamiliar experience for a young man who has, justifiably, been spoken so highly of by the team management as well as anyone who has anything to do with cricket.
So, Rahul had problems against the impish, admirable Dananjaya with his vast bag of tricks. So, he couldn’t pick his googly more than once. But should those three failures be enough to consign him to the sin-bin for six games in a row? After all, the premise was that he was too good a player to not have to sit out, which was exactly why he was dropped down the order to keep the ultra-successful Dhawan-Rohit opening combine going. And yet, by leaving him out of the XI after those Sri Lankan misadventures, what is the signal being sent to Rahul?
The decision not to push him back to the opening slot once Dhawan left Sri Lanka midway through the ODI series to tend to his unwell mother was understandable to the extent that the think-tank was convinced that Rahul’s calling lay in the middle order. With Dhawan pulling out of the Australia series as well, Ajinkya Rahane made the most of the opening by establishing himself as the reserve opener with four successive half-centuries. And all this while, Rahul watched on from the outer, perhaps wistfully, perhaps ruing being so good that a place had to be found for him in the middle order, perhaps cursing his luck for running into a red-hot Dananjaya.
Rahul is no stranger to batting in the middle order in international cricket. On his Test debut, in Melbourne in December 2014, he came in at No. 6 in the first innings and No. 3 in the second before being restored to his preferred opening slot for the next Test. He celebrated the elevation with a wonderful 110, suggesting that 3 and 1 in his first Test were mere aberrations. He hasn’t not opened since in the longest format.
His only Twenty20 International hundred, against Windies in August last year in Lauderhill, came at No. 4. Interestingly, he has opened in each of his next four T20I innings. Is there a pattern in the lack of pattern? Is Rahul the ultimate floater in a limited-overs team that prides itself on floaters beyond the top three? Or is he the most dispensable batsman in white-ball cricket for the time being, even though he averages a whopping 50.66 in nine T20Is and a passable 35.42 in 10 ODIs?
Currently, in the 50-over format, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Hardik Pandya automatically occupying two of the four middle-order slots, the race is on between Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey and Rahul for the other two positions. Jadhav, with his parallel-to-the-ground offspin, and Pandey are the flavours of the season. Rahul, who would have fancied a dash at the top of the order in Dhawan’s absence, is almost the forgotten one, not even requisitioned after the hosts had taken an unbeatable 3-0 lead late last month against Steven Smith’s men. Unless he is carrying an injury that is being carefully concealed, that is a pretty baffling predicament; you can’t score runs sitting outside, and yet, it is this precise lack of runs that seems to be hurting Rahul’s prospects. Unless too, of course, there is a grand plan that we are not privy to.
Rahul must not be left hanging without a fair run because, already, in the need to identify the core for the 2019 World Cup, the decision-makers have instilled seeds of self-doubt and uncertainty in more than one proven performer.
India have six more ODIs at home between the third week of October and the third week of December – three each against New Zealand and then Sri Lanka. It is possible that Rahul will play in at least a few of those games – though I won’t be holding my breath. If the larger picture entails Rahul’s presence as a middle-order option, then he must be given a long enough rope to familiarise himself with the demands and challenges that batting in the middle overs necessitates. He must not be left hanging without a fair run because, already, in the need to identify the core for the 2019 World Cup, the decision-makers have instilled seeds of self-doubt and uncertainty in more than one proven performer.
There is much that is admirable about this Indian team – the hunger and the ambition, the strength and the depth, the versatility and the resolve. There is a reason why India are the No. 1 Test team, and the No. 1 ODI side, too. But there must also be reasons for the recall from the blue of, say, Ashish Nehra, for the T20I series against Australia. The left-arm paceman is 38, and hasn’t played a competitive fixture since May 6, during the Indian Premier League. He is admittedly an excellent T20 exponent, as 162 sticks in 131 T20 games at an economy of 7.70 will attest to. He might have passed the Yo-Yo test that Washington Sundar, 20 years younger, allegedly failed recently, though there is no official word on either situation. But where is the larger picture in this case? It isn’t as if there is a World T20 round the corner where India can feed off Nehra’s brilliance. And it isn’t as if there is a paucity of resources otherwise. Prasad would do well to shed some light on the Nehra selection. And also tell the world what the current ODI status of ‘too good a player’ Rahul is.