Unpopular Opinion: KL Rahul's versatility could become his worst enemy
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Lokesh Rahul is currently not just the toast of Indian cricket, but all of the cricketing world. After all, how many players have shown the kind of career trajectory he has in recent times?
A tumultuous first half of 2019 flowed seamlessly into World Cup in June for Rahul, but that wasn’t without its fair share of controversies. The contentious no. 4 spot was handed to Rahul with a snub to Ambati Rayudu, and an unfortunate injury to Shikhar Dhawan saw KL’s unexpected rise to the opener position. And that was only the beginning of Rahul’s year as a floater. Only recently, Rishabh Pant’s exclusion has seen Rahul also glove up behind the stumps as stand-in wicketkeeper. And the final T20I of the 5-match series versus New Zealand even saw him captain the second half of the game, leading to a cool whitewash win – the first-ever in history. Calling him a team player would be a bit of an understatement, because he’s much more than that currently; there’s little he’s not contributed with.
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There’s no doubting one thing – Rahul’s absolute sincerity and dedication to the Indian cricket team. For the past eight-odd months, the Karnataka player has padded up with the certainty that he will play for the team, his position in the line-up notwithstanding. He’s answered the call of manager Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli every single time. So much so that a popular joke goes that the team is one injury away from Rahul also turning a bowler. And you wouldn’t be too far off, since he’s been spotted also throwing his arm around in the nets!
However, this floater, all-rounder – in the truest sense – role would probably be gnawing at Rahul. Because when all the injuries are resolved and all permanent fixtures are back to their positions, will Rahul be left to play the second fiddle? What happens when Shikhar Dhawan and Rishabh Pant come back into the fray?
Let’s rewind to May of last year. Rahul was brought into the World Cup team because of the merit he showed for the no. 4 spot. The position had been under a serious question mark in the run-up to the World Cup, with all that the media seemed to be interested in was who will be that bridge between the top and middle order.
The breezy Kings XI Punjab batsman seemed like a natural option, but one that surprised many. He ended up playing all of one game at that position, then being sent at no. 6, and being promoted to the opening slot. Two half-centuries and a blitzing 111 versus Sri Lanka during the tournament saw everyone hailing Rahul. But the return of the original opening fixture Dhawan was looming large on Rahul anyway.
Cut to eight months after the World Cup and it seems like the team has found its answer for the number four conundrum – at least for the next few tournaments – and it’s not Rahul. Shreyas Iyer made inroads to secure the position, and has done a fabulous job of it in New Zealand – and even in India batting between no. 3 and 5. There’s also the swashbuckling Manish Pandey, whose recent form has provided another mouth-watering alternative for the position. And while Iyer, Virat, Pandey and others were rotating places in the middle order, Rahul, on the other hand, was filling in for both Rohit Sharma and Dhawan when the opportunity presented itself, or had to bat anywhere between no. 3 and 6.
Another unfortunate injury to Shikhar and the poor form of Pant, who is being groomed hard to fill MS Dhoni’s shoes, threw the Indian team in a conundrum during the extensive summer tour of New Zealand. Rahul, who former Indian cricketer Mohammad Kaif has dubbed India’s ‘very own Swiss knife,’ was a no-brainer for the team management. Throughout his career, Rahul has been known to be an opening batsman and a wicket-keeper, making him a natural fit for this position.
Not to forget his calm and collected captaining while fielding in the second innings of the fifth and final T20I versus New Zealand on Sunday. Even as the game looked like it was about the slip away at a couple of junctures, especially with Ross Taylor running away with the show, Rahul showed poise and a calm, collected head to juggle the bowlers at his disposal in a way that could hurt the batting team. Handing over the ball to Navdeep Saini when New Zealand was looking like they would demolish the chase, yielded the Indian team Taylor’s prize wicket, engineering the collapse of the Kiwi side beautifully.
Throw any role at Rahul in a crisis situation and you’re sure to find a fix for it. But what happens when regular fixtures are back? Sharma, once fit, will be vice-captain of the team again, standing in for Kohli when needed; Dhawan will go back to doing what he does best – open; young Pant will be groomed once again to take over Dhoni’s reins behind the stumps.
Rahul is too valuable a player to be kept out of the side, however. A Swiss knife for when you can’t find the right tools around, it would be foolish to drop a conscious cricketer like him. Even so, despite his crazy good form, he’s been omitted for the Test side for the New Zealand series, something that former Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan too criticised. And he’s always in imminent danger of being an expendable asset for what is perhaps one of India’s greatest limited-overs side currently.
Former cricketer Gautam Gambhir, on the eve of the first ODI versus the Kiwis, wrote that it would be a bad idea to remove Rahul from the top of the order, in the absence of both Sharma and Dhawan. Not a big fan of his position as a floater, Gambhir also asserted that he must be used better in the side. Pant keeping in the ODI – the longer limited-over format – while Rahul opened with debutant Mayank Agarwal, in hindsight, could have saved India the blushes in the four-wicket trouncing today. Prithvi Shaw and Agarwal were both bundled off cheaply, while Rahul, at no. 5 played a steadying innings of 88 not out.
While it could be classified as an unpopular opinion, Rahul’s sincerity to ace every floater role he’s put into is probably going to turn him into his worst enemy in the bigger picture of his career. The sooner he can superglue himself to a role that’s tailored for him, the better it would be. Unfortunately for him, that doesn’t seem to happening anytime soon.Published 05 Feb 2020, 22:18 IST