KL Rahul’s Test career took off brilliantly. He scored three centuries in his first six Tests, and there came a time when he couldn’t stop scoring runs. After an impressive 199 against England, Rahul proceeded to score seven consecutive half-centuries against Australia and Sri Lanka. However, as good as his journey had been, he suddenly found himself running out of fuel. The West Indies tour was an opportunity for Rahul to refill and take off again. As it turned out, the journey has now come to a halt.
And in the cabin now, is Rohit Sharma, who has a way with new beginnings. Of course, there’s the arrival of Shubman Gill, who has theoretically replaced Rahul in the Test squad. As MSK Prasad said, though, Rohit is set to occupy the opening slot, so we might see Gill warming the bench – at least at the beginning.
The selection of Rohit Sharma is a dedicated attempt to push him for a role he has so brilliantly adopted in the limited-overs format. Let’s be honest - India is not short of talents. Shubman Gill has been scoring heavily. Abhimanyu Easwaran, who was in contention for a place in the squad, has been equally brilliant. Priyank Panchal is also ringing the bells and Prithvi Shaw will eye a comeback once the ban ends, which makes the selection of Rohit Sharma all-the-more significant.
It is a selection made on faith and hope. Rohit is one of the senior members in the side whose Test career has never been focal in his time with Team India. This selection aims to revive his innings in the longest format, and, at the same time, solve the opening crisis which has been itching Kohli and co. for quite some time.
Rohit’s Déjà vu
Six years ago, Rohit Sharma found himself in a similar position. The Mumbai batsman’s form had deserted him woefully ahead of the 2013 Champions Trophy, and the-then captain MS Dhoni decided to tweak his batting position. The decision turned out to be a career-defining one for Rohit, and orchestrated the path to India’s incredible limited-overs successes since.
A repeat in the longest format of the game won’t be too bad for him and the team – even when the road ahead is difficult.
KL Rahul was given a long rope to succeed in Test matches, but it is unlikely in the case of Rohit Sharma. Rohit came into the team primarily as a middle-order batsman, and the poor performances in the opening order have forced the selector’s hand to provide Rohit with another chance. Thanks to Hanuma Vihari’s impressive outings in the middle-order and a throng of youngsters bursting in the background, selectors are less likely to stick with Rohit if this experiment fails.
While the series against South Africa is a good opportunity for the batsman to make an impact, Rohit has a long, rather ugly history with moving deliveries, and Kagiso Rabada can make things tough for him even on Indian pitches.
Rohit’s ‘second innings’ in Test matches has been compared to that of Virender Sehwag, who helped revolutionize the opening in the longest format. But while Rohit certainly ticks some boxes, it will be harsh to expect the same from him. Rohit is much older than Sehwag was when the break came for him. The latter was bursting into his prime, while Rohit is at a stage where he is hardly in a position to buy time.
Rahul – Where from here?
Rahul’s is a classic case of players with immense potential failing to deliver. The Karnataka batsman had seemingly made the opening spot his own in the Test matches. However, he suffered a huge dip in form – since November 2017, he has average merely 22 in fifteen Test matches. More than that, though, it was disturbing to see such a technically sound batsman being so susceptible in the recently-concluded tour to the Windies.
Rahul looked uncomfortable facing short balls, and the lack of confidence showed. His decision-making was poor – on a number of occasions, he would attempt a shot but withdraw his bat at the final moment.
His poor approach was best reflected in the final innings of the second Test in West Indies. India took a comprehensive 299-run lead in the first innings, and the pressure had relatively eased off. However, Rahul’s innings seemed like he was batting on the fifth day to save the Test. There was a sense of fear to his approach, almost as if he was premeditating too much instead of playing on the merit of the delivery. He was eventually dismissed on 6, facing 63 deliveries.
MSK Prasad, the chief selector, stressed that the doors are not closed for Rahul, however.
“Let me give you the example of VVS Laxman. When he was dropped once from the side, he went to the domestic side, scored 1400 runs and never looked back. Whoever we give an opportunity now, we will give them a fair run. We have created a bench-strength succession chart in each department in all formats," Prasad told the media during after the selection.
The ‘new-age Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman’ are on the different ends of the spectrum. A repeat of the originals will require a heroic effort, of course. It will be interesting, however, to see how their careers unfold from here.