Just past 6pm on Monday, a BCCI media release announced that KL Rahul and Karn Sharma had been included in the Board President’s XI to take on New Zealand on 17 and 19 October in Mumbai. It was a late addition, just under 24 hours before the first game, but one assumes the two players already knew about this beforehand.
Even so, it set thinking horses free. About two months ago, when the ODI team was announced in Sri Lanka, chief selector MSK Prasad had clearly outlined that Rahul would bat at No 4. It is also understood that the team management — especially Virat Kohli — had pushed for this option. And ahead of the first ODI, the skipper himself confirmed as much when he said that Rahul ‘couldn’t be left out of the playing eleven’. With Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma set in their ways, Rahul had to slip down the order.
This experiment — in the garb of preparation for the 2019 World Cup — failed spectacularly. Rahul batted in the middle order only thrice in Sri Lanka, and scored 4, 17 and 7. He has not been selected in the ODI eleven since and sat out the Australia series completely. Surprisingly enough, he had opened the innings in the solitary T20 in Lanka in Dhawan’s absence and looked more comfortable immediately. Perhaps this was the clearest hint as to where he wants to bat in the Indian batting order, and indeed where the team management would prefer to slot him too. The question, though, is of form.
From the Champions Trophy to the Test series in Lanka, Dhawan showed a brilliant hand and it became difficult to ignore him. Rahul’s own form was stupendous earlier in the year, and he fared well on that Lankan tour as well. At times, it is about adjustment or even flexibility that asks the management to change a particular formation for one player. Dhawan’s form and Rahul’s inclusion in the middle order are causality and effect, sure. And it isn’t the first time this has happened, even for this Indian team.
It was in January 2013 when Ajinkya Rahane’s run as Indian opener first ended. Back then the team management was keenly looking for new opening pairings across formats, for they needed apt replacements for Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Murali Vijay was a Test shoe-in, and Rahane looked good — atleast on paper — for the ODIs. The other spot was a bit of a revolving door.
England were touring India for five ODIs back then, and in the middle of the series, Rohit replaced Rahane at the top owing to the latter’s poor run. Five months later, as India won the Champions Trophy, he made that spot his own. Another few months later, with a double hundred against Australia, he had the opener’s spot all sewn up for good. At the other end, Dhawan’s graph soared too, in both Tests and ODIs. And this became India’s opening partnership for the 2015 World Cup.
Like the present situation though, a question remained in front of the team management then too. It was more a riddle actually, which they couldn’t really solve. What about Rahane, someone who excelled in all conditions? How could he be left out? Nay, how could he be accommodated in the ODI eleven?
In response, Rahane — a top-order batsman — was shifted up and down the line-up, moving from one spot to another, finally settling in the middle during a World Cup, and in all this interim spanning two years, he was not able to make much of an impact. Until now, Rahane’s ODI career graph hasn’t taken off precisely because of this meddling, and it has taken a long time for him to settle down as the third-choice opener.
In his nascent ODI career so far, Rahul is following nearly the same trajectory as of Rahane.
He started well, making his 2016 IPL form count, and scored runs in Zimbabwe. Against England then, his frailties first appeared. Rahul, at times, isn’t sure of his stroke play, particularly in the initial overs. At other times, he seems too keen to get a move on. He had played six innings as an opener, not enough to cement his footing there, before he was asked to move down. Rahane atleast got to play more games as an opener. So, did a few IPL outings coax the team management in thinking if Rahul could do a middle-order job?
It underlines the current conundrum in front of the selectors. They now have three settled opening options in Dhawan, Rohit and Rahane, with Rahul moved down. He didn’t find success there, and Manish Pandey got ahead of him in the pecking order. From being indispensable, Rahul can now no longer be accommodated in the side and is out of the ODI squad to face New Zealand. This is some fall from grace for the Karnataka opener in just about six weekss. It ought to have felt like a kick in the teeth.
Additionally, some uncomfortable questions arise out of this muddle. Rahul surely remains in the team management’s ODI plans, but has the complexity of this situation been explained to him in full? Clearly, he has been told to go back to domestic cricket and return to the Indian team with some runs behind him. Is Rahul surplus to middle-order requirements because Hardik Pandya has found success at No 4? In including Dinesh Karthik then, have the selectors hedged their finishing role?
Most importantly, if, and when, Rahul does return to the ODI side though, will he come back as an opener or middle order batsman? At this moment in time, nobody — including perhaps the selectors even — know this answer.