When cricketers who are used to playing through the summer after an overseas tour and before a home series stagger back to the field after the coronavirus-enforced break, having given their tweeting fingers more exercise than their legs through the previous several months, a conundrum will await the selectors.
Without IPL performances to go by, and with each player separated from his last innings by a lockdown, they will have to make several crucial decisions: Is Dhoni too sacred to drop (provided he doesn’t retire)? What about poor Rishabh Pant, who has been on the fringes of selection more often than he has been in the Playing XI? And does K L Rahul deserve a heavy enough burden to break his back right when he is beginning to stand tall again?
Over the past decade, cricket has evolved – or devolved – into a sport in which it is no longer enough for someone to be a batsman; or a bowler, for that matter. There is only one No. 11 slot available and the prevailing notion is that the tail must wag, and wag fast too.
Ideally, a cricketer must be able to bat, bowl, field brilliantly, and keep wickets too.
Rahul had a meteoric rise once he turned professional. Within months of making his first class debut, he had donned the national colours for the Under-19 World Cup. Within three years, he was in the IPL and the next year, he was in the national Test team.
He spent his first matches in all three formats of the game – Tests, One-Day Internationals and Twenty20 Internationals – breaking records.
He was The Next Big Thing.
The problem is, six years on, he is still The Next Big Thing.
Whenever he is in danger of being dropped, he proves his critics wrong.
And whenever he seems certain to deliver on the Promise, he loses form.
You can hardly blame him. Within his first two Test outings, he had batted in three different positions. He has been praised for his versatility, which has given the team management licence to shift him from position to position and expect him to perform.
And now, he is being called upon to be a wicketkeeper-batsman.
His height is not the problem. Dhoni is hardly of small build. And once upon a time, Mitchell Starc kept wickets for Northern Districts. This was probably before a growth spurt took him closer to seven feet than six, but Rahul isn’t too tall to be a wicketkeeper. Adam Gilchrist, who eventually became one of the best-performing wicketkeeper-batsmen in the history of the game, was rather tall.
But few wicketkeeper-batsmen have the style or beautiful stroke-making abilities of Rahul. His batting is almost an ode to the era when big hitting wasn’t a prerequisite for selection, although he is quite capable of smashing the ball around.
A genuine batsman should not be converted into a keeper. K L Rahul’s namesake, Rahul Dravid, was tried out as wicketkeeper, and he never got good enough for the conversion to work, perhaps thankfully for his career.
There is something to be said for specialist wicketkeepers who can bat a handy innings when needed. A case in point is Dhoni himself, who even in his late thirties is arguably far more nimble than the current prospects for his replacement. The number of stumpings he has effected speaks to his ability to predict the flight of the ball as well as read the batsman’s intentions. But Dhoni cannot – and should not – go on for long.
And just as there was no attempt to convert him into a top-order batsman, someone who belongs in the top order shouldn’t be forced into a wicketkeeper’s mould.
This may be a good time for cricket bodies across the world to do some reflecting.
With packed schedules and fat paycheques to entice players into leagues, anyone who wants to be an international star must prove his mettle in all three formats in two different roles to become indispensible.
If Rahul had to keep wickets consistently, chances are that he would damage his body, his batting abilities, or both.
The next couple of years will be crucial for the player. Rahul will move from being a young cricketer with Promise to a senior player. He will either become the Big Thing everyone thinks he could be, or a could-have-been-but-never-was.
And the fastest way to ensure he has every chance of failure would be to remove him from the list of specialist batsmen and park him behind the stumps.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Virat Kohli, a poor ambassador for the spirit of cricket
Bumrah, a tragedy that must be averted
MSD shouldn't make Sachin's mistake
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com