India’s chief selector MSK Prasad confirmed that opener KL Rahul was dropped from India’s Test squad to face South Africa due to his lackluster form, paving the way for Rohit Sharma to get a fair run at the top of the order.

In the only major change to the squad that won 2-0 in West Indies recently, Shubman Gill was rewarded for his stupendous recent form with a call-up for the three-match series against South Africa next month. Gill’s call-up was in place of Rahul, who has not made the most of the opportunities that came his away according to the selectors.

But, as things stand, Gill will be a back-up to Rohit and Mayank Agarwal.

“Yes, we are definitely looking [at Rohit] as an opener, and we want to give him an opportunity,” Prasad said in New Delhi after the squad announcement. “He is keen, and all of us in the selection committee are keen too. We want to push him, and give him some opportunities up the order, and see where he stands, and then we will take a call. [Like other openers] he will get a fair run.”

Prasad added, “He has been opening in white-ball cricket for more than a decade [actually, 2013 was when he started opening for India]. We feel he has the capability to bat up the order, we have seen that in white-ball cricket, and if he can do that in red-ball cricket, then nothing like it. We have a lot of practice matches coming up, which will be a boost to this side,”

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The big talking point of the squad selection was Gill’s selection, of course. The Punjab youngster has been banging the door down and in 14 first-class matches so far, Gill has amassed 1443 runs at an average of 72.15 with a highest score of 268. In the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season, he was the top-scorer for Punjab. He also slammed a double century for India A during their tour of West Indies.

“He has done well both as an opener and in the middle order, so he can be a back-up for both the slots,” Prasad said. “That’s the reason when KL [Rahul] was dropped out, we had given him the opportunity, but as keeps playing he’ll get more opportunities because he’s a player for all three formats.”

Rohit will also captain the Board President’s XI, which will take on the South African side in a three-day tour match in Vizianagaram from September 26 where the other openers in contention for the national side like Priyank Panchal, Abhimanyu Easwaran will be in action as well.

Inconsistent KL Rahul

Prasad also spoke about the need to persist with a multi-format talent like Rahul.

“To tell you the truth, I think he’s an exceptional talent. We backed him, but his form has definitely dipped in red-ball cricket. With Shikhar not there, Murali Vijay has gone out, so you need to stick with one opener. You just can’t keep changing both the openers in the side,” Prasad said.

“Probably with the seniors [having] exited, KL has got more opportunities but unfortunately he was not delivering consistently, and only delivering in patches. And even during those patches you could see that brilliance in him, so that gives you confidence ‘Come on, let’s back him.’ When he’s on song, he’s a treat to watch.

Asked if this meant that the door is closed for the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay and Rahul, Prasad said, “Let me give you the example of VVS Laxman. When he was dropped once from the side, he went to the domestic side, scored 1400 runs and never looked back.”

“Whoever we give an opportunity now, we will give them a fair run. We have created a bench-strength succession chart in each department in all formats,” he added.

Pacer Umesh Yadav, who was in the squad for the recent West Indies tour, was also dropped and Prasad said that it was because only two pacers are likely to feature in the XI against South Africa, adding that the pacer will feature heavily for India A and in the domestic circuit.

As for Hardik Pandya being omitted, Prasad said it was a combination of India not needing a seaming all-rounder in home conditions along with the responsibility of shouldering a heavy white-ball workload in the near future. The 26-year-old has had injury troubles in the recent past.

The former India wicket-keeper confirmed that Hanuma Vihari, who opened in place of Rahul in Australia, is now a settled middle-order batsman and won’t be moved up the order. He also left the decision over Rishabh Pant and Wriddhiman Saha for first-choice to the team management.