Handed a Lifeline, KL Rahul Makes it Count

KL Rahul’s rich form in the first two Tests has come as an unexpected boon for the Indian team in the ongoing series against England. He made 84 and 26 in the first at Trent Bridge, followed by a magnificent century in the first innings at Lord’s to not just quell a deep crisis arising out of injuries to key players, but has in fact made the team stronger

Rahul wasn’t meant to open the batting. He was taken on the tour as a middle-order batsman. Considered now a white ball specialist and opener, he had played as opened in Tests earlier but had lost his place after a string of disappointing scores. Some critics and observers believed he was lucky to be on the England tour since there were no white-ball matches scheduled.

Apart from Rohit Sharma, other openers in the squad were Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal, with Abhimanyu Easwaran as back -up. With the top order packed with regulars Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul’s prospects of getting a break in the five-Test series looks dim — unless some batsman was a colossal failure.

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However, there was a sudden twist to the story when Gill and Agarwal both got injured. The Indian team management was at sixes and sevens, making a panic call to fly Prithvi Shaw and Surya Kumar Yadav straight from Sri Lanka where they were assisting the Indian team in white-ball tournaments.

Beaten in the World Test Championship final a few weeks earlier, the weakness of Indian batsmen against swing and seam was the team’s biggest vulnerability and past record was uninspiring. Since winning a series in England in 2007, India had lost 0-4 in 2011, 1-3 in 2014, and 1-4 in 2018.

While the home team was considerably weakened too with Ben Stokes pulling out of the series at the last minute because of mental health issues, and the batting unsettled and bereft of high caliber barring Joe Root, the equation between the two teams wasn’t one-sided. In Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad England had a formidable pace bowling pair with an outstanding record at home against England.

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It is unlikely whether Rahul would have been chosen had Shaw been in England with the original squad or reached earlier and finished the quarantine requirements. Unwilling – and justifiably so – to thrust untested Easwaran into the deep end right at the start of the series, Kohli and Shastri plumped for Rahul and hit the bullseye.

In the three innings, he’s played so far this series, he’s been perhaps the batsman with the most important contributions. Joe Root was majestic in the first Test with a half-century followed by a century, but that is not such a surprise from someone regarded as a modern great.

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Rohit Sharma has been the other batsman to impress. He’s fairly new in the role of an opener having been promoted only in 2019, but has batted with finesse and controlled aggression. There was some skepticism whether Rohit would have the same success as he did on home pitches if the ball was swinging and seaming but he has shrugged that aside in style.

Rohit had 5 centuries in the 2019 World Cup and is renowned as a run-scoring Godzilla in white-ball cricket. But red-ball cricket is vastly different and some compunctions about his ability in the longest format persisted. Rohit has shrugged that off with aplomb. The counter-attack in the first innings of the ongoing Test, after he had got his eye in, was breathtaking.

However, in the context of his own career, and this series so far, Rahul’s performances exceed those of Root and Rohit. Given the circumstances and reason why he was played, he was on a short leash when he played the first Test. Agarwal was to be fit for the second Test and Shaw only had to see through his quarantine period.

Failure at Trent Bridge would almost certainly have had Rahul off-loaded from the playing XI. And this could conceivably have put his Test career in peril, for batting places in the Indian team are currently hard to come by. Agarwal/Shaw and Surya Kumar Yadav would have edged past him for inclusion, as an opener or in the middle-order.

The pressure on him was enormous when he went out to bat at Trent Bridge, compounded by tough conditions for batting, with Anderson particularly and Broad and Robinson in cracking form, testing and probing batsmen without respite. Rahul had his share of luck but showed considerable pluck, and a fine array of shots to make the most runs for his team.

In the next Test, he’s gone a step further, scoring a hundred. In the three innings he’s played so far, Rahul’s passed most tests for an opening batsman with flying colours. He’s seen off the new ball threat with fine technique and temperament, mixing dour defence with attacking strokes, paced his innings to a nicety changing gears at the right time, picking the right bowlers to attack.

Perhaps most importantly, he has complemented Rohit Sharma splendidly. There has been no attempt at one-upmanship. Rahul hasn’t tried to match Sharma’s dazzling strokeplay, in fact, has readily played foil. But he hasn’t been a laggard either. Loose deliveries have not gone unpunished, and he’s stepped on the accelerator once his eye is in, and the bowling shows signs of flagging.

Over these three innings, Rahul’s shown desire and skills to score runs, and the bandwidth to carry the responsibility of opening the innings. Some years back, he was touted as the next big thing in Indian cricket but lost his way in Test cricket. Luck offered him a lifeline to resurrect his career. He’s taken it with both hands. And Indian cricket’s richer.

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