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Does KL Rahul deserve the long rope he is being given as Test opener?

India’s finest Test opener retired more than 30 years ago and the search for the next Sunil Manohar Gavaskar continues.

cricket Updated: Oct 17, 2018 08:58 IST
Arnab Sen
Arnab Sen
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
KL Rahul,Shikhar Dhawan,Murali Vijay
India's KL Rahul looks dejected after being dismissed(REUTERS)

Test cricket requires and recognises specialists like no other format of the game does. The two most significant, specialist, roles in Test cricket are that of the wicket-keeper and the opening batsmen. The openers are responsible for setting the tone of the innings, often needing a combination of the indomitable spirit of an outnumbered soldier waiting for his opportunity to strike and the dexterity of a maverick, who could, in a flash, change gears and make the most of a situation. Most of all a Test opener needs oodles of patience and the necessary technique to silently see off the vagaries of a fresh red cherry (cricket ball).

India’s finest Test opener retired more than 30 years ago and the search for the next Sunil Manohar Gavaskar continues. Apart from the years that Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir padded up together and gave India’s ‘fab four’ the necessary platform to build big totals, both home and away, the revolving door has seen several cricketers enter and leave. Since Gavaskar’s retirement in 1987, it must be noted that he played in the middle order towards the fag end of his career, India have tried 37 openers with only Sehwag (98), Gambhir (57) and Murali Vijay (55) playing more than 50 Test matches at the top of the order.

Apart from inconsistency, one major reason for several careers getting nipped at the bud has been the lack of technical acumen to deal with the rising and the moving ball away from the sub-continent. But some have been unlucky too.

Aakash Chopra for instance impressed all and sundry with his technique and ability to grind it in the middle with his show in Australia. But back to back failures against quality pace attacks of Pakistan (away) and Australia (home) meant his career ended after 10 Tests. Shiv Sundar Das (1326 runs in 23 Tests) and S Ramesh (1367 runs in 19 Tests) had longer careers than Chopra but paid the price for their failures outside the subcontinent.

The one man who could seriously count himself unlucky was the domestic run machine Wasim Jaffer. The Mumbai batsman played 31 Tests for India, scoring 1944 runs at an average of 34.10, with 5 centuries and 11 half-centuries under his belt. His last 5 Test innings read 73, 9, 19, 15, 10. Not the greatest of scores but not bad enough to be sent to cold storage forever. Jaffer went on to have some of his best years in domestic cricket after being shown the door from the national team, but was never considered for a comeback, often ignored for being on the wrong side of 30.

KL Rahul’s numbers after 31 Test matches are identical to that of Jaffer. Rahul though enjoys the backing of the team management and is being seen as a ‘future prospect’. Yes, Rahul does have age on his side as he is all of 26 but has he done enough to merit this kind of backing. While there is no doubt about the class in Rahul’s batting but the perception of being a quality batsman is built primarily around the knock of 110 in Sydney, in what was his second Test match, and the string of 9 half-centuries in 11 innings during the long home season last year.

The opener though has been exposed against the moving ball, failing miserably in South Africa and not doing enough, apart from a rearguard 149 in a dead rubber, during the England tour. His problems against the incoming delivery were on display again in the recently concluded home series against West Indies, getting dismissed leg before wicket and bowled in two of the three innings.

If one sees the performance of the three Indian openers who have been in the mix over the past few years in the tough away tours of England, Australia and South Africa, Murali Vijay stands head and shoulder above Shikhar Dhawan and Rahul. Vijay though was shown the door mid-way through the England series and a comeback to the Test side looks like a distant dream for the Tamil Nadu batsman.

The rise of Prithvi Shaw has given India renewed hope of a world class Test opener since Sehwag, but who will partner him in Australia. From the looks of it, Rahul is the preferred choice. Then what about Mayank Agarwal, the Karnataka opener who has literally forced team management to finally let go of their favourite (read Dhawan) by the dint of his run making in the domestic circuit as well as for India A.

While it is important to back quality players, one must also be prepared to take bold decisions to ensure there is no stagnation. India has failed to do well in Tests outside the sub-continent for seven years now and a major reason for that has been the lack of quality openers, who can shield the middle order and lay strong foundations.

If Virat Kohli wants to be successful outside the sub-continent, he needs to identify his ponies better and then place long term bets. Rahul has the time on hand to go back to the grind of domestic cricket, resurrect his technique and come back stronger, and that will also give chance to two young openers to test their skills at the highest stage.

KL Rahul is indeed a rare talent, but whether or not he delivers on his promise will depend on whether he is mollycoddled or allowed to find his groove through rigors of domestic cricket by the team management.

First Published: Oct 16, 2018 15:32 IST