IND vs AUS: A frown replaced KL Rahul’s smile. He was batting without fuss in Nagpur for his 20 before a moment of misjudgment ended his stay. He stared heartbreakingly at the rough from where the ball had leapt. For he knew that another failure would raise the volume of criticism against him. Since his last hundred — an attritional 123 against Kagiso Rabada and Co in Centurion, when no other batsman of either side managed half as many runs in the entire Test, runs have dried up.
In 10 innings since, he had hoarded only 180 runs, and combined with middling returns in white-ball formats, his spot has been subject to incessant scrutiny. Not least because he has displaced the brightest young batting talent in the country, arguably in the world, who in two weeks had peeled out hundreds in all formats.
His latest failure raises the question ahead of the second Test in the Border Gavaskar Trophy — whether he deserves another shot at redemption. Perhaps he does, at least for the singular reason that he is already one of the most successful openers of his country abroad. No India opener has scored a hundred in South Africa, England, and Australia. Of course, all hundreds are equal, but some are more equal.
Those wrought in tough climes, taming swing and seam, Dukes and Kookaburra, under ominous grey skies and on lustrous grassy decks, have more gloss and glitter than those achieved in heat and dust on brown crumbling surfaces. It’s the reason batsmen value their hundreds abroad — Sachin Tendulkar still regards his 116 at Perth as his finest because it was scored on a lightning quick surface against a battery of intimidating pacers; Graham Gooch rates his hundreds against the West Indies pace pack higher than his triple century against India.
Thus every knock, every victory, and every failure should be put in context. The hundreds of Rahul scripted in Lord’s and Centurion not only came in difficult conditions but also turned out to be match-defining. India won both games and he was the man of the match in both instances. In different passages of both games, he negotiated probing bowlers and testing conditions.
An inspired James Anderson in his second spell at Lord’s. A tails-up Rabada with the new ball. Historically, few Indian openers have conquered the devils in England and South Africa. In the last two series in England, only Rohit Sharma has a hundred other than Rahul (2). And only one registered a hundred in South Africa before Rahul (Wasim Jaffer in 2006).
That he is the only India opener to have scored hundreds in Australia, South Africa and England shows how rare a specimen he is. The dilemma of selectors and team management is understandable. It’s irresistible but to give him a long rope. If the fallow patch continues, he would be dropped, but not after he is given adequate chances for his talent to fully blossom into consistent runs.
If Virat Kohli could be given time — and in the past, everyone from Tendulkar to Dravid, Laxman to Sehwag, had staggered along rough highways — so could Rahul. Besides, hasty axing could end careers. What if Rohit Sharma was shunned forever after his wildly erratic returns at the start of his career! But Rohit was worth the patience and chances showered on him.
The fate of Murali Vijay should not befall Rahul. Eight failures, spread out in England and Australia in some of the most difficult decks against some of the finest new-ball wielders ever, ended his career without a stage for redemption.
Rahul should be given the concession of injuries. In his short career, he has endured a stream of injuries and illness since the Centurion century. A bout of appendicitis during the IPL, a left thigh strain before the New Zealand series, an upper left hamstring strain that kept him out of the series against Sri Lanka, and a blow he copped on his arm ruled him out of the T20Is against South Africa. Before that he had his shoulder operated as well, apart from fever and flu that have rendered a start-stop nature to his career.
Such injury-induced layoffs are career-disrupting. Each time, Rahul had to press the restart button, begin all over again from the scratch, and swing through the wringer again. Doubts wink in, insecurities creep in, and the mind becomes a mess. Rahul himself has confessed: “When you come back, you are not the same player, the same person. Your body doesn’t react the same way to a situation. When you come out and straightaway play international cricket, the expectations are high.”
He has felt the whiplash of criticism as well. “One or two bad performances and you hear all sorts of things from the outside world. That can be tough. That’s part of our job. I have understood it’s always going to be challenging,” he had said. Post recovery, he has batted just five times, too small a period to drop someone who you have invested in. He has not looked particularly troubled in any of those, facing an average of 59 balls in each innings. In Nagpur, too, he did not look particularly tormented, it was just that he was not flowing. He needn’t because Rohit Sharma was boundary-barraging at the other. Rahul was quietly reviving himself. He was smiling and enjoying his batting before the odd ball gripped and turned. Perhaps, he could have been more vigilant, then it happens to the best of batsmen.
That said, the team would not eternally wait for him to crack the consistency code. Sustained failures would force a rethink and selectors would no longer resist the irresistibly gifted Shubman Gill. But between then and now, he has earned his rope of survival. He might not yet be living on borrowed time, but the longer he waits for another hundred the sooner that time would knock on his doors.