I’m happy to bat wherever the team asks me to bat.
How often have we heard this? It has to be the most annoying, generic comment that a player can make during an interview. It may seem like a diplomatic response at first but read between the lines and you’ll find that it reveals much about the psyche of a cricketer on the fringes of selection.
We all know what position I prefer to bat in, but it hasn’t been working out. What if it never works out? I’ll try anything. I’ll bat anywhere. Just don’t drop me…
Most players would be chuffed if you told them that they would make the national squad in all three formats of the game. Yet it’s not all roses and rainbows for KL Rahul, who hasn’t nailed down a spot in any of the three playing elevens.
Given his strong T20I record, one assumes it’s only a matter of time before he replaces Shikhar Dhawan at the top of the order. However, his future in the longer formats of the game is on shaky ground.
In ODIs, he has switched between the opening slot and number four. After scoring a century against Bangladesh in a World Cup warm-up fixture, he was touted as the antidote to India’s middle order woes. However, he barely got a chance to test that hypothesis after Dhawan was ruled out of the World Cup with a fractured thumb, and Rahul was pushed up to open in the left-hander’s place.
Despite scoring two fifties and a hundred in the seven innings that followed, Rahul failed against the better bowling line-ups of the tournament. Who can forget his painstaking 9-ball duck against England? What about his role in India’s spectacular top-order collapse against New Zealand, where he was caught behind, fishing outside the off stump in tough conditions to a ball he could have left alone?
To put it frankly, a century against a Sri Lankan team in a dead rubber does not win you world cups. Unlike Dhawan, who boasts an intimidating record in ICC tournaments, Rahul has stumbled when it has mattered the most. There was no way he was going to be retained as an opener for the West Indies ODIs when the mustachioed southpaw returned.
As far as the number four slot is concerned, Rahul’s inability to make an impact against tough opposition is why Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer were chosen ahead of him in the Caribbean.
As the test series approaches, Rahul’s finds himself in a similar predicament to the one day format. Prithvi Shaw’s doping ban has opened up a spot for him at the top of the test line-up in much the same way that Dhawan’s fractured thumb did for him in the ODIs. In fact, if you go back even further, the only reason he was given an extended run in the test series down under was that Shaw rolled his ankle during practice and Rohit Sharma had to fly back for the birth of his first child.
Despite these two strokes of luck, he was ditched halfway through the series in favor of newcomer Mayank Agarwal and makeshift opener Hanuma Vihari.
His failures surprised those who witnessed his 149 in the 2nd innings of the final test against England at The Oval. The gutsy knock led many to believe that Rahul had finally found his feet in the longest format. However, in retrospect, this was yet another big score from KL Rahul in a meaningless dead rubber.
Many critics put his inconsistency down to the IPL, which has compromised both his technique and his shot selection.
They’re not wrong.
Yet, this doesn’t paint a complete picture of his struggles. The truth is, Rahul’s lack of impact comes down to an identity crisis.
Does KL Rahul even know who he is?
In ODI’s, is he the opener that is meant to anchor the innings or the dasher, who lights up the IPL season after season? Does he even have a future as an opener?
In Test Cricket, is he the classical player, who drew comparisons with Dravid in his debut series? Or is he a Warner-esque aggressor who plays with freedom?
Even if he is able to answer these questions, it is unlikely that he will receive any support from the team management or the selectors. With Ravi Shastri being retained as India’s Head Coach despite his embarrassing dearth of coaching experience, one has to wonder if he is qualified to help Rahul with his identity crisis. It is highly doubtful that Shastri has worked out what role Rahul needs to play in each of the three formats, let alone communicated the same to the right-hander.
The selectors have also been riddled with an equally frustrating degree of indecision. Their handling of India’s number four dilemma in the years leading up to the world cup was nothing short of deplorable. It’s unfair to expect Rahul to prosper at that position when he was dropped after one failure in the 2018 ODI series in England. This was barely a week after he scored a match-winning century in the T20I leg of the tour.
With Prithvi Shaw’s ban expiring in three months, and the likes of Priyank Panchal breathing down his neck, a poor test series against the West Indies could be disastrous for Rahul’s red ball future.
Unless he is able to find the answer to his identity crisis, there is every possibility that he could go from making all three squads today to being totally lost in the wilderness tomorrow.