North Sound: The Karnataka teammates KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal opened a Test innings for India together for the first time at the Sydney Cricket Ground. They were the third set of openers tried by India during their series win in Australia, which, basically, saw the end of Murali Vijay as the steadying hand at the top of the order. Prithvi Shaw was supposed to be the next gun Indian opener, and he showed more than a glimpse of his abilities but was lost to injury in Australia and to a drug suspension for this tour to the West Indies.
And so, India, perhaps as a vote of confidence or as an admission of the dearth of quality openers in the domestic circuit, chose to select the SCG pair as the only openers in the squad on the Caribbean two-Tests jaunt. Indian skipper Virat Kohli wanted these two batsmen to use the four innings in the West Indies to “express themselves” and “come in to their own”.
Since the good old days of Virender Sehwag-Gautam Gambhir and to an extent M. Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, India have struggled to send out a pair of opening batsmen that could bat time and score runs away from home, especially against top opposition. Agarwal, despite some obvious shortcomings in his technique, did himself a huge favour by registering a fifty on debut in the grand venue of MCG. Two half-centuries in his first two Tests, that too in Australia, ensured he was on this trip.
KL Rahul, on the other hand, is relatively a veteran with 35 Tests to his name, 19 of which he was part of the opening partnership. As an opener, he averages 34.35 which is none too dissimilar from his overall career average of 35.27. Rahul’s career has taken an interesting route where he was initially known as a batsmen with a solid defense that then tried to adapt to the demands of T20 game, and as Kohli said, “looking... to making things count at the Test level again.”
It is evident that both players earned their way through very good first-class records into the Indian Test side, but both – despite the vast gaps in terms of their Test match experience – have a long way to go before they could be considered as established Test openers. Shaw may have a say on it at some point, probably in the near future as well.
In the meantime, the dismissals of Agarwal and Rahul, in the second innings of the first Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium was quite jarring to observe. On a pitch that did not hold any gremlins except when Kemar Roach had the ball in hand, as India were just looking to build on their first-innings lead of 80 runs and bat time, both batsmen were dismissed by the non-threatening off-spin of Roston Chase.
It is good to have a paddle, as the saying goes when one is up shit’s creek. But when you are an opening batsman, and the need is to play risk-free cricket and pile on the lead, a paddle may not really be necessary, but both Agarwal and Rahul thought otherwise.
When faced with an overpitched delivery, Agarwal could have presented a straight bat and strolled a single; instead, he decided to employ the paddle sweep only that he didn’t get into the position needed to play the stroke and was struck in front, and adjudged LBW. Even as ball-tracking showed later that the delivery would have missed the stumps and he should have reviewed the decision, his partner said that “to the naked eye, it looked pretty dead and [Agarwal] knew it too.” Even otherwise, just on the principle that he was trying to play across the line when there really was no need for it, Agarwal ought to have been declared out. However, this is just his third Test match and perhaps he will learn from it.
Rahul had moved on without much hassle to 38 off 85 deliveries. He had just cut a delivery from Chase square on the offside to the fence. There wasn’t a necessity to play any high-risk shots but then in his mind, he thought differently. He brought out the paddle.
As he had faced Chase for a few overs by then and was familiar with the lines, and the fact that he had just square cut him for four, Rahul expected the length to be fuller and the line closer to the stumps. “Since I had hit him for a boundary the previous ball, I knew he would try to bowl a better length which would be easier for me to paddle,” said the opener, adding that “I was thinking boundary and not getting LBW or anything. I was thinking runs.”
That is an interesting state of mind. He was looking to put further pressure on the spinner by paddling for four, which could then lead the bowler to shorten his length and allow him to plaster another boundary. This is almost Sehwag-esque thinking; hit boundaries not because you have to, but because you can. And that line of thinking perhaps shut the door on the part of the brain that wants to avoid or at least reduce risks.
Famously, Sachin Tendulkar avoided the cover drive entirely during an unbeaten innings of 241 at SCG. No one would have expected Rahul to be as risk averse. He indeed plays a variety of sweep shots against spinners in Tests as well as in the shorter formats. Perhaps, he needs to take into account the match situations before embracing risk. Even as he noted later, as a batsman plays more and gains experience, the realisation “that there are better options of unsettling the bowler than [playing] a risky shot” will happen.
Soon after he exposed all his three stumps for Chase’s delivery to coast through, Cheteshwar Pujara was dismissed, and “it could’ve been tricky for the team” had Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane not brought out the proverbial paddle when an ambitious choice of shot was leading India up a shit’s creek.
Playing shots that bring with them a higher degree of risk is not a taboo but the batsmen need to recognize the times when it is worth it, and that comes with experience. One would hope, for Agarwal and Rahul’s sake, that they get those opportunities, and luckily for them, there are two more innings on this tour for them to gain that experience.