Wasn't KL Rahul a certainty for the Boxing Day Test? The twin failures of Prithvi Shaw in Adelaide, the absence of Virat Kohli for the rest of the series, no Rohit Sharma at Melbourne, and the experience of two previous tours of Australia. Weren’t these reasons enough to make the most obvious assumption?
Rahul shares an interesting relationship with the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). He debuted at the same coliseum as a 22-year-old during India’s 2014-15 tour.
Batting in the middle-order, he found the most bizarre ways to get dismissed in both the innings. He carried a reputation of being a solid defensive batsman, but he perished trying to slog unnecessarily in both the innings. In the following Test, he was batting at his regular opening spot and slammed a ton.
Four years later, ahead of the Boxing Day Test, he would lose his Test spot to his Karnataka teammate Mayank Agarwal.
Two more years and here we are. On the eve of the Boxing Day Test, India have announced their line-up without Rahul. Shubman Gill will replace opener Prithvi Shaw, and Hanuma Vihari retains his place.
Most talks during the zillions of press conferences centre around the current form, new day and how it's all about living in the moment. But there's more to Test cricket.
Gideon Haigh once told a fellow journalist Siddhartha Khandelwal – 'People need to be reminded that cricket is older than the last five minutes.'
If selections in Test cricket was only based on recent form, then a Shaun Marsh would have replaced Joe Burns in the first Test at Adelaide?
Was the right call made with Rahul? In the absence of Kohli, would India need Rahul's experience in the middle-order? We will come to that.
KL Rahul’s rise
If there has been one Indian batsman other than Kohli who has looked an apt fit across formats, it's Rahul. Starting as an opener in the classical mould, Rahul metamorphosed to an all-format batsman by IPL 2016.
Injuries would often halt his march, but his versatility was too good to ignore for the national selectors. Be it the T20I hundred at Florida or the fastest fifty in IPL or that 199 he got at Chennai (overshadowed by Karun Nair's triple ton), Rahul made batting soothing to eyes, making jaws drop with the rare blend of orthodoxy and improvisation.
Before India's South Africa tour in 2018, the side stared at a happy opening conundrum with Rahul on the rise, even Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay had scored aplenty. Before the tour, Rahul had 1,428 runs from 21 Tests at 44.62. His four centuries had come in Australia, Sri Lanka, West Indies and India respectively.
KL Rahul’s disastrous two-year in Tests
A horrendous year ensued. Rahul scored 30 runs in the two Tests in South Africa. Meanwhile, his form against the white ball transcended to another level, but the fall was drastic in Tests. He had a disastrous tour of England, but a spirited hundred in the tour's final innings gave him another rope.
Debutant Shaw would smash a hundred in his first innings during the home series in West Indies. Rahul would manage scores of 0, 4, and 33*.
Rahul was still picked in Australia and made the XI in the first two Tests where he scored 2, 44, 2, and 0. He lost his place to his Agarwal ahead of the MCG Test. He returned at Sydney and got 9.
Later in 2019 when India travelled to West Indies, Rahul was still picked. All Rahul managed was 101 runs from four innings. That was when the line was drawn. Enough was enough for the Indian selectors, and Rahul was dropped from Tests.
KL Rahul's career before and after January 2018
Is Rahul not a good enough batsman to enter India's Test line-up despite the absence of Kohli and Rohit?
Rahul's recent rise as a giant against the white ball blindfolds many. The IPL is in the most recent memory where he amassed 670 runs to own the Orange Cap.
Each format has its challenges. In an era of specialists, is it prudent to hand Rahul another Test spot ahead of someone waiting in the queue for long?
Ever since Rahul got dropped from the Test side, he just played one First-Class game. In the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Bengal earlier this year, Rahul got scores of 26 and 0. Enough to warrant a Test XI return?
Many would now question why he was picked in the first place?
Ahead of the Adelaide Test, Kohli had clarified, “KL was brought into the side understanding that we do have opening options already. When Rohit Sharma comes back into the team, we have another opener who is established and going to start. So where and how KL fits in is a conversation that we will have to monitor closely. We have to bring our best squad to Australia and then go ahead with the best combination.”
Rahul's form has helped him earn a spot in the Test squad, but that's not enough to guarantee him a place in the XI ahead of someone like Vihari or Gill. Had it been a standard 16-member squad, would Rahul even make it?
The Vihari case
Both Vihari and Rahul became known names during the 2013 IPL. They were batsmen trying to make a mark with their waiting game. In 2014, both of them were a part of the Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) unit.
Rahul transformed himself into a new-age batsman, whereas Vihari disappeared from the IPL circuit, scoring prolifically against the red-ball. His exploits in the Indian domestic circuit saw him earn berths for the A tours. His run-making habit continued overseas with the A-side, and soon he was drafted into the senior Test squad.
Ahead of the Adelaide Test, during an interview with Steve Smith, Kohli picked Vihari as the Indian batsman to watch out for in this series.
Meanwhile, Gill has been banging the selection door for a year-and-half. Vihari, who has been with the team for the past two and half years, has played nine out of his 10 Tests away from home.
Starting his career with a fifty at The Oval, he had a quiet tour of Australia where he had to don the thankless role of an opener in the MCG Test. He was brilliant in West Indies and scored a fifty in the final Test in New Zealand.
Like most others, he had a disappointing outing at Adelaide. Before that, he had a decent Ranji season, averaging above 40 and in the First-Class games in Australia ahead of the Tests, he got scores of 15, 28, 15, and 104*.
Indian batsmen overseas since Vihari’s debut
Vihari has been as good or as poor as the others. To his disadvantage, he didn’t play enough at home to boost those numbers. Anyway.
Amid this competitive environment, there’s no doubt that Vihari stands on thin ice that’s melting rapidly. However, he has done more than Rahul in the recent past against the red ball, and therefore, the call was marginal and could have gone either way. The selection could rather be called a fair one.
True, cricket is older than the last five minutes.
Last time when Vihari walked out to bat at the MCG as an opener, Pat Cummins exploited his discomfort against the short-ball very early. The pressure is now on the 27-year-old Andhra batsman. He will have to do a lot more than what he has to cement his footing.