In conditions more Christchurch than Kolkata, India’s batsmen have been put through the wringer by Sri Lanka’s honest medium-paced attack that has grown artificial fangs. The first Test of a series that had widely been tipped to mirror the one-sidedness of the one three months ago, when India ran rings around the Sri Lankans in their own patch, has sprung to life through a combination of a grassy knoll at the Eden Gardens, the attendant cloud cover and Dinesh Chandimal’s luck with the coin.
India’s top order has been confronted with a reality check. Admittedly, they haven’t encountered such a demanding challenge before – and are unlikely to on a regular basis; therefore, they must be cut some slack. The ball jagging around and climbing alarmingly off a length from the damp surface is a hazardous proposition even at speeds of 130kph, calling for huge reserves of technical competence, mental resolve and dollops of luck. Virat Kohli’s team, determined to take extraneous uncontrollables out of the picture, will have chalked down this Eden Test so far as a stepping stone, what with tougher overseas examinations lying in wait over the next 14 months.
For one man who will more rue the unfairness of it in the immediate future, all this is no consolation. Who would want to be in KL Rahul’s shoes right now? Honestly?
Rahul’s first-innings misadventure at the Eden lasted exactly one ball. A golden duck is bad enough, but when it is off the first ball of a Test match – indeed, the Test series – then you can be excused for wanting the earth to open up and gobble you. All the hours of physical readying, of mental preparedness, of visualisation blown away by the first delivery, no matter how meanly unplayable it might have been.
The only way Rahul could have survived that brute from Suranga Lakmal was if he had been at the non-striker’s end. It was that good a delivery, not something you expect first up and most certainly not what you want to encounter straightaway. Lakmal was clearly warmed up despite the delayed start, despite the false start when the players came out for the beginning of the skirmishes only to hare back to the dressing-room briefly. As first balls go, this was up there with the best – threatening to shape back in all the way, then angling away on pitching, getting big on the batsman, brushing glove and nestling in the wicketkeeper’s mitts. Perhaps, had Rahul not been good enough to get close to the ball, he would have survived. Perhaps, if Shikhar Dhawan had taken first strike….
But that’s not how the game goes, does it? You cannot score runs from the non-striker’s end, just as you cannot score runs from the outer – where Rahul now finds himself when it comes to 50-over international cricket. And, as he has repeatedly shown, Rahul does know a thing or two about scoring runs.
The Karnataka opener came into this innings on the cusp of a world record. Another fifty in the first innings at the Eden would have made him the first batsman in Test history to record half-centuries in eight consecutive innings. That wasn’t to be, not with the conditions and Lakmal deigning otherwise, but how is seven fifties on the trot for consistency? Alright, so if you wish to nitpick, then Rahul hasn’t converted any of those into a century – the exact opposite of his early days in Test cricket when he had four hundreds and just one fifty in his first 19 innings – but that is almost a moot point, isn’t it?
Those seven fifties were spread across two series, with a long break post shoulder surgery and one Test match missed through illness thrown in between. That he managed to stretch that run for so long despite all these irritants speaks to the young man’s character.
But such is the lot of the opener, any opener, but especially if you are playing at the highest level, that you are invariably set up for failure. Even if the conditions aren’t necessarily stacked against you, the ball is new and hard, the bowlers are fresh and charged up, the nerves are jangling, the butterflies are fluttering. And when you factor in the suspense of when play will begin on a rainy, dull, overcast day and a surface that has every medium pacer and above worth his salt licking his lips in gleeful anticipation, you sometimes ask yourself, ‘Why me?’
That’s, of course, only momentary self-pity. As Virender Sehwag has often done, and as Rahul himself has showcased, opening the batting in Test cricket is also an opportunity. Sehwag’s theory, which he translated into practice more often than one would have thought possible, was that the attacking close-in fields afforded him a greater chance to stack up the runs. As theories go, that is extraordinarily basic and sound; you need exceptional skills to back that up with action, and Sehwag obviously had those. Like Chris Gayle. Like Matthew Hayden. Like David Warner.
Rahul isn’t the first batsman to be dismissed off the first ball of a Test match – Dimuth Karunaratne from the opposition will testify – nor will he be the last. Players generally are fairly clued in on stats and numbers, and as both Rohit Sharma and Kohli have publicly admitted in the last month or so, they do also listen to the experts on television when inside the changing-room. So Rahul will almost certainly know that the list of first-ballers includes several illustrious names.
Among them is a certain Sunil Gavaskar, the first of two batsmen to have fallen first ball three times. “Welcome to the club, KL Rahul,” the little master said on air, only in jest, before announcing in all seriousness that, “given his class, there is no reason why Rahul can’t make 34 hundreds, maybe even more.” The torch-bearer of Indian batsmanship isn’t given to hyperbole, and Rahul has only four Test tons to his name, the last of them 11 months and 12 innings back. But when the maker of 10,122 runs, someone who has been there and done that, whose empathy stems from personal experience rather than perception, offers words of encouragement and confidence, then you must be doing something right. That’s how Rahul must look at it.
Two of the bowlers that consigned Gavaskar to the long walk back a minute into the Test match are legends of the game, Malcolm ‘Maco’ Marshall and Imran Khan. Geoff Arnold, the first to pack him off first ball, was more journeyman than virtuoso, though he is one of only five bowlers to have picked up a wicket off the opening delivery of a Test match more than once. Lakmal is the latest entrant into that celebrated exclusive club. Oh how Rahul would be wishing he had been at the non-striker’s end.