‘Shunned’ as Test opener, Rahul may have to bide time

‘Shunned’ as Test opener, Rahul may have to bide time

Indian cricket’s recent history is replete with examples of middle-order batsmen being pushed up to open in Tests. The reasons vary from the non-availability of regular openers to the need to accommodate a favoured batsman in the middle-order. The emphasis here is on Tests, for there haven’t been many examples, at least in public domain, of a middle-order batsman refusing to open in limited-overs cricket while the reverse has been true.

Against this backdrop, KL Rahul’s position in the overall scheme of things is unique. He is a classical opening batsman who is reportedly being deemed fit now to bat only in the middle-order in red-ball cricket by the captain-coach duo of Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri respectively. Whether it’s a carefully orchestrated mirage or a reality is difficult to ascertain, but given how Rahul’s chequered Test career has panned out since the 2018-19 tour of Australia, there seems reasonable credence to the claims. More so, given the team manager’s request for a replacement for injured opener Shubman Gill for the upcoming five-Test series against England.

Exactly when and how the team management developed this impression about Rahul’s competence or otherwise at the top of the order is a mystery, but his performances in 36 Tests emphatically debunk the theory that he is better suited to the middle-order. Only on six occasions has he batted outside of Nos. 1 and 2, for a grand total of 91 runs. All his five hundreds and 10 of his 11 half-centuries have come while opening the innings.   

Pointedly asked about Rahul’s status in the squad, a former selector said when the previous committee was in place, he had been considered as an opener first and foremost. “We always maintained that he is an opener who can bat in the middle-order too. Given the kind of batsman he is, we always felt he can be flexible. But I don’t know when this talk of him not being good enough to open started,” said the selector who chose not to be named.

The team management in England has requisitioned at least one of Prithvi Shaw or Devdutt Padikkal, currently in Sri Lanka for an international limited-overs series against the hosts.

This has obviously raised the hackles in some circles, given that Bengal opener Abhimanyu Easwaran, who is yet to make his international debut, is in the reserves. Including Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal, that’s still three openers at the team’s disposal, even if they choose to ignore Rahul’s credentials as an opener.

There’s, however, a catch. The team management, it is learnt, isn’t convinced about Eswaran’s ability to open in English conditions. With two of the four openers out of favour as far as the captain is concerned, it may appear imperative to have a back-up, considering the length of the series and the Covid situation in the UK, but is there merit in the team management’s demand?

“Are you telling me Prithvi Shaw will be able to handle the moving ball in England?” the selector questioned. “Getting runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy (50-over format) on Indian pitches is one thing but facing (James) Anderson and Stuart Broad in red-ball cricket in England is a totally different challenge. 

“Also, if you are so confident of Shaw now, why did you drop him after one Test in Australia? It’s not like he has got runs in first-class cricket after that. I don’t understand the logic but it’s very unfair to the guys already in the team. You are demoralising them even before the series has begun,” he added.

While that’s a valid point, it also begs a question as to why the skipper didn’t ask for the inclusion of Shaw instead of Easwaran in the first place, if only as a reserve? The Bengal captain has been with the team as part of the reserves since the four-Test home series against England, and has reportedly received positive feedback from the team management about his work ethic and attitude.

Another selector from the same panel also rubbished the impression about Rahul. "As far as we were concerned, he was always an opener," he said, adding that the team's demand for Shaw was perhaps more to do with apprehension over Eswaran's abilities. 

"I think they are considering Rahul for the No. 3 position." 

Cheteshwar Pujara has owned this position for some time now, but the situation has changed substantially following his poor run at home against England and his laborious efforts in the World Test Championship Final against New Zealand. His run-free occupation of the crease forced Kohli to publicly castigate his approach. The skipper went a step further and spoke of bringing "right people with the right mindset."   

Asked if he was indicating that Pujara could make way for Rahul, the ex-selector all but agreed. "That's my hunch. Knowing how these things work, it's a great possibility at least in the near future, if not immediately."

The issue may have been settled for now with the selectors turning down the demand for replacements, but what exactly the mental state of Eswaran and Rahul would be is anybody’s guess. That doesn’t speak highly of a team management that harps on empathy.