One of cricket’s most common platitudes talks about the chasm that exists between domestic and international cricket, and no one in the current Indian squad embodies that more than Karun Nair. He scored three consecutive centuries in his debut first-class season, and a triple-hundred in the Ranji final the following season. In six of his seven international innings, he has failed to cross 26. He averaged less than 40 for India A on their recent tour in England.
And yet, it’s the one other international inning that made an impression big enough for India to trust him as their reserve batsman on a crucial away tour. Five test series’ are long, arduous and weary, and the last time Karun Nair played England, they were at the end of their mental and physical reserves, in conditions that sapped every sinew of their bodies, against an Indian team that wanted to obliterate everything in sight even at 3-0 up. India were still 260 behind when Karun came to bat, and had a lead of 282 by the time they declared. Karun Nair was still there, 303 runs to his name, looking fresher than a fast bowler on the first morning of a Test match.
It wasn’t an innings you remember for the fluidity of strokeplay or the audacity of intent, but it was one you remember for a young man showing hunger that betrayed his international experience of just a handful of innings. Many youngsters get hundreds at younger ages or earlier stages of their career, but it’s the mental distance from a hundred to the double or triple century that proves too far for even a majority of the seasoned campaigners, nevermind the newbies. Nair is the sixth youngest male cricketer ever to score a test triple century, and the second youngest in the last fifty years.
It’s that composure that India will be banking on, if Karun is called upon at any point during this tour. One doesn’t land the captaincy of an ‘A’ team managed by Rahul Dravid without showing requisite merit, and the team management would like to believe a revival of Karun’s international career is just around the corner.
Nair as a batsman is a chip of the old block, classical, vertical-shot dominant and plays the ball late, making him an adept back-foot player. In England, where the ball moves both ways, and most times really late, his style will hold him in good stead. Barring Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay, and Ajinkya Rahane, most of India’s batsmen like to get on the front-foot and play with a forward push, hitting the ball early. All of them have the scars to show from 2014, where Anderson and Broad ran them ragged every time they looked to play a front-foot shot.
Even if Kohli has always preferred to play a five-bowler combination, thus leaving no space for a sixth pure batsman in the lineup, it won’t be lost on Karun Nair that India are a bit undecided on the middle order. If the first couple of Tests go south, India are likely to fall back on a stronger batting spine to at least give them the option of mounting good scores. In that case, he might get his golden chance to strike a blow as a middle-order prospect.
A good performance in an away series will hold a lot more weightage than one good inning at the fag end of a home series, even if the one in question is monumental like Karun’s in Chennai. He only needs to look towards his captain for inspiration. Kohli played the Perth and Adelaide Tests of India’s 2011-12 tour of Australia unsure of his place in the Test squad, or whether he even had the temperament to play longform cricket. In three short years, he was leading India out in a Test match on the same ground.
Reserve players don’t get the space to fail and recover, neither the match-acclimatization that the first team will enjoy, and in that lies their biggest challenge. It can be an unfair ask for a young international cricketer to deliver with the few chances available, but Karun Nair must ensure it doesn’t bog him down. Given the talent pool that India enjoys with batsmen, the second rung will only get this much of a window to break in, and it will require substantial effort to even shield his spot in the team setup.