Ever since KL Rahul played a loose shot and dragged a wide delivery from left-arm rookie Sam Curran onto his stumps in the Birmingham Test in August, things have not been hunky-dory for him.
That loose stroke on that distant day not only surrendered the initiative to England but with it the momentum in the much-awaited series. That solitary irresponsible shot shook faith in his shot selection and reading of a match situation.
Since then, Rahul has always been under a cloud, his knock of 149 in his last Test innings in England notwithstanding.
The ensuing pressure has told on him to the extent that his last seven Test innings have not produced a single fifty. Neither, for that matter, have his last 12 international innings.
He was given a lifeline in this series when young Prithvi Shaw injured himself in the tour match. But it now seems even that has not spurred him on to consolidate his place in the playing eleven.
It is not about Rahul’s ability or talent. If that were the case he would not have made that stirring 110 as a rookie in the Sydney Test against Australia in 2015. Nor could he have made Test centuries in challenging situations in Sri Lanka, West Indies, India and England.
A lot of Rahul’s early international career was hampered by injuries. But each time, Rahul came back with a bang to show that he had it in him to be a top-notch batsman.
Alas! Those expectations are now beginning to belie. The talented Karnataka batsman’s temperament is being called to question, especially after he has been dismissed in bizarre ways in tight match situations.
The most surprising aspect of his batting for those who have followed his game closely is the poor body language that is now so evident when he walks out to bat.
He seems to have lost that spring in his step. Often it looks like he’d rather be someplace else, than in the heat of the battle.
This is a far cry from the confident young man who loved to take on a challenge just a couple of years ago. Rahul, during that phase, looked like an eager cricketer keen on soaking up all the experience he could. Thus he was willing to do anything: open the batting, play lower down the order, try innovative strokes, don wicket keeping gloves, anything.
But now, especially in this Australian series, his confidence looks shot to pieces. He does not look like he wants to be in the limelight.
Maybe he has had a surfeit of cricket. Maybe he is plain fatigued and wants to get away from the game so that he can reboot, refresh and re-discover the drive and hunger that brought him thus far.
On Monday, at Perth, India needed a solid opening stand from Rahul and Vijay; just like they needed in the first innings of the Test. India were already 1-0 up in the series and therefore ought to have been bristling with confidence.
The Australians, on the other hand, had lost the opening Test and were trailing on home soil. Another poor Test would have destroyed the home supporters faith in their ability. Thus they were the decided underdogs coming into the Perth Test.
However, what was witnessed was the right opposite. The Aussies pressed confidently while India’s opening batsmen, Vijay and Rahul simply fell apart.
Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood had their tails up while Vijay and Rahul who should have been dictating terms to the Australians, looked distinctly out of place.
If one thought the first innings display was an aberration, the second innings was worse. Rahul was too tense, jittery and unsettled to make any right call. He played onto his stumps in the very first over while trying to shoulder arms to the wrong delivery.
His fourth ball dismissal might well be his final innings in Australia unless he is thrown yet another lifeline.
Of course, it would be wrong to blame only the opening batsmen for India’s batting woes in this Test. However, thus far neither looks like they have either the confidence or conviction in their own ability. That’s a pity because both Rahul and Vijay have proved that they belong at this level.
But if confidence is the bugbear and the duo are showing neither the intent nor the heart for a fight, the time is ripe to replace them with batsmen with greater self-belief and confidence.
Prithvi Shaw has been sent back after failing to recover completely from the ankle injury and Mayank Agarwal has been called up. However, the tour management would do well to keep their options open vis-a-vis Shikhar Dhawan. He is already in Australia, living with his family in Melbourne and has a fair idea of Aussie conditions and pitches and importantly could be more aggressive against the less swinging Kokaburra ball. In fact, the aggressive, experienced left- hand opening batsman could be the right short-term replacement for Rahul. His left-handed stroke play could also counter Nathan Lyon’s wares.
Meanwhile, cooling his heels could be just the tonic for Rahul to do a reality check and thereby get his mind and game in order.