Perth: About 20 minutes after India won the first Test in Adelaide, something of note happened. The ground was still busy; the two captains spoke to the media, the TV crews wound up wires to ship them for Perth, and the beer tents at the Oval’s lawn started to come down.
It didn’t compare to what was seen in the nets – Sanjay Bangar giving throw downs to KL Rahul. This isn’t an odd sight. When Tests end early, players – particularly from the visiting side – work on different aspects of their game that they feel need smoothening out for the long series.
The peculiar bit about this net session was in its timing. India had just won a first Test on Australian soil since 2007-08. It was their first-ever 1-0 lead in the opening match of the series. Hell, searching for that elusive overseas win, it was an important marker for this Indian team in 2018 and one could only imagine the dressing room celebrations.
Rahul, though, had his focus elsewhere. He wanted to bat, and bat, and then bat some more. Still clad in Test whites, protective straps over his flannels, he had stepped off the field, into his batting gear, and at the crease for nets. Knocking some balls, talking to Bangar and ready to take throw downs again, rinse, repeat – there was certain desperation about him.
This has been an odd year for Rahul. In January, as India set off on their long overseas schedule, he was the third-choice opener behind Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay when the first Test at Cape Town came by. Twelve months down the road, things have changed dramatically for the Indian top-order.
Sample this. In nine overseas Tests in 2018, India have used four different opening combinations. Dhawan-Vijay opened in Cape Town and Birmingham. Rahul-Vijay opened in Centurion, Johannesburg (first innings) and Adelaide. Rahul-Dhawan opened in Nottingham, Southampton and the Oval. It is a quagmire – so much so that Vijay-Parthiv Patel opened in the second innings in Johannesburg – that’s four opening pairs in three Tests!
Further, in South Africa, India’s openers averaged 18.16 in three Tests. In England, they averaged 23.70 in five Tests. In Australia, they have started with 66 runs in two innings. These are poor numbers of course, but it isn’t necessarily a derivative of chopping and changing.
It is a chicken-egg thing, this – you don’t know if the Indian team management is chopping around because of poor outputs, or poor outputs are because of chopping around. Either way, it hasn’t helped, and Vijay – who averages 20.15 in 7 Tests this year – was the only one to come out and say this after being dropped from the England tour.
Meanwhile, Dhawan averaged 27.36 in 8 Tests this year, and is rightfully out of Test reckoning at present. Rahul, too, hasn’t produced a run-fest, averaging 24.52 in 11 Tests thus far in 2018. Taken in singularity, he doesn’t merit a starting spot in the Test playing eleven, period. He can thank the convoluted state of affairs concerning India’s top-order that he is still on tour here in Australia.
In other words, Rahul hasn’t made a case for continuous selection. It’s just that his competition, for better or worse, has fallen by the wayside. Of course, the other argument herein is about ‘luck’. It is another way of defining the proverbial ‘long rope’ that is afforded to certain players.
Again, sample this – Rahul’s highest scores this year have been 54 against Afghanistan at Bengaluru and 149 against England at the Oval. In fact, his next best score in overseas Test cricket after that hundred is 44 at Adelaide. Previously, it was 37 in the first innings at the Oval. Prior to that, it was 36 in the second innings at Nottingham. In South Africa, his highest score was 16 at Johannesburg. Rahul went 13 Test overseas innings without crossing the 50-mark in 2018.
There are other batsmen in this Test squad who have been dropped for less – ask Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. There are others who haven’t been given a chance even – remember Karun Nair and Mayank Agarwal? Someone in the team management likes Rahul a lot.
After going 1-0 up in the series, Virat Kohli praised the manner in which Rahul had changed gears suddenly.
“44 runs in the context of a 323-run target is massive,” he had said.
Truth told that little cameo had opened up the game for both sides. For India, it was a kick-on to their scoring. For Australia, it was the search of wickets.
Somewhere on that fine line between attack and defence, Rahul stands today, a batsman reeking in indecision and unfamiliar in identity.
Four years ago, announcing his arrival at Sydney, he had become the poster-opener for Test cricket. But he wanted more, rightly so, and over the next year, expanded his shot selection to suit white-ball cricket.
The result is there for all to see – we have a batsman who goes golden during the IPL, yet is struggling to replicate that form elsewhere, be it white or red ball cricket on the international stage. It underlines Rahul’s struggles with the batsman within.
There is ambition to be an all weather, all-season opener for India. But world over, batsmen are struggling to cope with the burden of three formats packed in the same calendar year, running parallel to each other, making demands that their game isn’t capable of catering to yet. Rahul is no different. And he is frantically searching for answers. Will his desperation finally bear fruit?