Images: Courtesy BCCI
When Team India came out to practice in Dublin ahead of the first T20I against Ireland on Wednesday, leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal made an apt point. “We are not taking any opposition lightly. We are playing together for the Indian team after a gap of 2-3 months, so we need to get going again,” he had said, ahead of what is an important English summer.
His words hold true in the sense that the last time a full-strength Indian team took the field was in February, in South Africa, when they won the ODI series 5-1 and the T20I series 2-1. Such windows allow for rejuvenation of players, as well as throw up names for future consideration. Pacer Siddarth Kaul, having done well for Sunrisers Hyderabad, is one such example.
Of course, the rejuvenation bit cannot be missed either, as seen in the case of KL Rahul who has risen like a phoenix in the domestic T20 season just gone by. It was a stormy evening in Mohali, when fours and sixes rained off his bat against Delhi Daredevils, as Rahul smacked a 14-ball half-century. It laid the foundation of a stupendous IPL season wherein he finished with 659 runs in 14 matches, inclusive of six half-centuries and re-ignited the debate over his inclusion in the Indian side across all formats.
That word ‘re-ignited’ is important herein. Turn back the pages to April 2017. Rahul was in that same zone. He had finished with 393 runs against Australia, inclusive of six half-centuries, in four Tests and was India’s foremost opening choice across all formats. Then, days before Royal Challengers Bangalore (his old team) were supposed to open their IPL season, Rahul announced that he would instead travel to London and get shoulder surgery done.
It was the end of his 2017 IPL ambitions, but the fallout wasn’t restricted. He missed the Champions Trophy thereafter, and as Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma blasted India to the final against Pakistan (in England), Rahul automatically drifted down the pecking order. Suddenly, he was only assured a starting ‘opening’ spot in two formats, shifted down to the middle in ODIs as part of the 2019 World Cup experimentation that began in Sri Lanka (in August).
A month later, when the ODI series against New Zealand came about, Rahul was left out of the squad altogether. Another month went by, and Dhawan enjoyed further ascendancy in form in the Test arena. When the moment of truth arrived in South Africa (first Test in Cape Town), Rahul was demoted to third-choice opener behind Dhawan and Murali Vijay. In less than 12 months, he is now assured of a starting spot in only one format – a remarkable downturn, thanks more to circumstances and less to form.
“That injury was really disappointing for me,” Rahul told this writer during the 2018 IPL.
“As concerns my good form, I am just trying to enjoy the IPL season. It is up to the team management to decide which is the best position for me in the eleven, if at all I am selected. I have never been greedy about things that I cannot control.”
The exclusion of Ajinkya Rahane from the ODI squad for England could be a pivotal moment in Rahul’s story. Just over a year ago, Rahane had been included in the Champions Trophy squad as Rahul was injured, and thus there was need to back him. In South Africa, Rahane batted at No.4 and started well, scoring a half-century in Durban. On slower tracks thereafter, he struggled.
Rahul’s return to the ODI squad – in place of Rahane – is a clear indication that the team management might just be ready to take another punt on him. Again, it is akin to 2017, when skipper Virat Kohli had proclaimed that Rahul – on current form – couldn’t be left out of any Indian side across formats. Unsurprisingly, the same holds true at present as well.
If Rahul is indeed in Kohli’s plan to bat at No.4 in the ODI series against England, then perhaps he should be in contention to do so from the very outset against Ireland, even in T20Is. One of the key reasons why the earlier experimentation with Rahul in the middle order failed against Sri Lanka is because he was simply thrust into the spotlight, without ample time for adjustment. In comparison, these two T20s against Ireland provide handsome opportunity to provide him a more stable starting point.
Of course, it would mean a bit of chopping and changing in the Indian batting line-up. In South Africa, Suresh Raina had been used as a pinch-hitting, aggressive number three option, with Manish Pandey slotted in the middle order along with Dinesh Karthik. With Rahul’s inclusion, there are only two spots up for grabs.
Raina provides a sixth bowling option as well. India would also not want to drop Dinesh Karthik, who is in sizzling form since March. It could mean that Pandey eventually warms the bench, despite scoring 255 runs in 8 T20Is (average 85) this year against South Africa, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
It is a problem that has given a long headache to the Indian skipper and selectors. Even so, if Rahul’s return to the Indian middle-order solves the long pending No.4 conundrum, thus crossing off another item in their 2019 ODI World Cup preparation, then it is worth a punt.
The author tweets @chetannarula