KL Rahul’s continuation in the Test team, despite his repeated failures, is proving to be one of the most curious cases in Indian cricket.
Not many have survived the kind of failures that the man from Bengaluru has endured. Fewer have received such unwavering support from the who’s who of Indian cricket, making for a fascinating watch.
So why is he being persisted with?
Talent or favouritism? A match winner or a liability? There are varied opinions, but for the men who matter, he is precious.
There aren’t too many videos of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in same frame. But there was one shot right after the Indian team finished its Asia Cup campaign in Dubai, where Kohli was interviewed by his skipper for the BCCI TV after his much-awaited 71st international hundred, against Afghanistan.
That interaction stood out for a different reason.
“We shouldn’t ignore KL’s knock as we know how important it is for KL to be in a good head space, heading into the World Cup. We know what he can do in this format, plays very clean shots, and once he bats in T20 cricket, our team looks even more strong,” Kohli said when Rohit asked how the former skipper was helping the other players.
The only thing that appeared a bit out of place in that particular interview was that the question on Rahul didn’t seem organic. It seemed as if they were were trying to make a statement in support of Rahul on behalf of the team.
The two biggest names in that dressing room wanted to get a protective shield around a teammate, whom they consider a minefield of talent but whose deliverables have been few and far in between.
Nearly six months have passed since that interaction and calls for Rahul’s ouster have reached a crescendo after three successive failures against Australia. Prior to facing Australia, he had four scores of under 25 against Bangladesh, not the most feared among the Test opposition.
What has surprised many is the carte blanche that the Rahul Dravid-led team management has given to the Bangalore man.
In the last two weeks, three senior members of the Indian team management have dead batted questions on Rahul’s form, but there was something eerily similar to their defence.
In Nagpur, the PTI had asked batting coach Vikram Rathour, also a former national selector, about Rahul’s form. Initially, he didn’t wish to comment but then spoke about his last two Test hundreds.
“To be fair to KL, he (Rahul) has scored two hundreds in his last 10 Tests – one in England and other in South Africa and also has a couple of fifties. So yeah, I don’t think we are there,” Rathour had said in Nagpur after the second day’s play against Australia.
Cut to Delhi, at the post-match interactions of coach Dravid and skipper Rohit, the basic narrative on Rahul seemed to be cut from the same cloth.
“It is not just about KL, but anyone. If you look at a couple of hundreds, he got outside India (England and SA, both in 2021), one of the best I have seen from KL, especially the one at Lord’s.
“Batting on that damp pitch in England, (that too) after losing the toss and put in to bat is never easy. He (Rahul) put a great performance there and Centurion was another one. India won both those games. That is the potential he has,” Rohit was all praise for his then vice-captain.
Dravid said almost the same thing in a reconstructed way.
“We will back him (Rahul) as far as possible,” Dravid told Star Sports.
So why this kind of fascination for one particular player, whose average is a below-par 33.44 after 47 Tests.
It is because every important member of the team management feels that Rahul has more talent than a Mayank Agarwal or a Shikhar Dhawan.
Talent without hardwork is of no use but hardwork without talent can only guarantee limited success.
Let’s get some numbers to decode the three openers who have have played for India in the last five years.
Rahul has 81 Test innings to his credit and has crossed the 50-run mark only 20 times, which includes seven hundreds and 13 half-centuries. The conversion rate is one 50 plus knock every four innings. Nothing spectacular.
Coming to Mayank Agarwal, he has 36 Test innings to his credit and has 10 knocks of over 50, with four hundreds and six half-centuries. That is one fifty plus knock every 3.6 innings.
The third sample is that of Dhawan, who last played Tests in 2018. He has played 58 innings and has the best 50 to 100 conversion rate among the trio, with seven hundreds and five fifties. So that’s 12 fifty plus scores in 58 knocks, roughly one knock per five innings (4.83 to be precise).
But here is the catch. Agarwal was dropped after eight knocks of under 50. Ditto for Dhawan, who was axed after eight failures (4 Tests) in England where he got starts in four innings. In one of the Tests that India won, Dhawan scored 35 and 44 in Nottingham.
But in the case of Rahul, there have been too many failures in between his success.
Since his last hundred at the Centurion in the Boxing Day Test, Rahul has played 11 innings and scored one fifty but endured 10 consecutive failures, not managing to go beyond 25.
The Indian team is using a different yardstick for Rahul. They are not showing the number of innings that he has failed and talking only about the two hundreds he has got in his last 10 Tests.
Where the team management’s alleged “favouritism” seems to gain credence, if one goes by Venkatesh Prasad’s strong tweets over last two Tests, is how prolonged his lean patch was before he got that hundred at Lords’ in 2021.
Prior to that knock, he had played 14 innings in three years and scored one fifty. The Test hundred before Lord’s was in 2018, but that came in a dead rubber at the Oval, after India had lost the series. Before the Oval hundred, he had a dry spell of 15 knocks without a fifty.
To be fair to Dravid, Rohit and Rathour, they were not part of that erstwhile management of Virat Kohli, Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Bangar, which had also backed Rahul to the hilt.
With Shubman Gill being made to wait at a time when he is in the groove, Rahul, having been stripped of his vice-captaincy, will probably get one last shot at redemption in Indore.
Numbers always doesn’t paint the whole picture and the great Neville Cardus once wrote: “The scoreboard was an ass because, as in such cases, it would ruin a perfectly delightful tale.”
From Rahul, Dravid and Rohit are awaiting that tale.