India have never won a Test series in South Africa but the Rainbow Nation is close to the heart of a bulk of the current crop of players.
Kohli and Rahane both average over 50 in the country and have played multiple memorable knocks while Pujara has a 150 next to his name against peak Steyn, Morkel, and Philander. Bumrah kick-started his now-remarkable Test career there while South Africa is also the place that saw the birth of Ishant 2.0. For Shami, meanwhile, South Africa is statistically his favorite SENA country.
Utter the words ‘South Africa’ to KL Rahul, though, and he’d whip out the ‘shut the noise’ gesture promptly.
Rahul ended 2017 with 633 runs, 9 fifties, and an average of nearly 50. It was a year in which he went toe-to-toe with Steven Smith and helped India win a series that, it seemed, they were destined to lose. There were injury troubles that pestered but there was little doubt that he was a special player worthy of holding the ‘next big thing’ tag.
And then South Africa happened.
Left out in the first Test of the series and then hastily brought back for the final two, played out of position in the final Test in Johannesburg too, Rahul ended the tour with scores of 10, 4, 0 and 16 and an average of 7.50.
But damningly for him, it would mark the beginning of an 18-month-long rut that would nearly end up dissolving his identity as a Test cricketer.
Those haunting memories must be long-gone now but four years on, Rahul is back to where it all went wrong for him.
More pressure and responsibilities on his shoulders than ever
The world does really work in funny ways. A year ago, Rahul was the fifth-choice opener in the Test side behind Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, and Mayank Agarwal. Many even argued that both Easwaran and Panchal deserved to be ahead in the pecking order too, thanks to their domestic exploits.
He will now enter the South Africa series not just as the first-choice opener, but also as the vice-captain of the side. Quite a mind-boggling elevation for a player who not too long ago was nowhere in the picture.
But the circumstances are such and the chain of events in the lead-up to the series means that there will be more pressure and responsibility on Rahul’s shoulders than ever.
The absence of Rohit Sharma automatically makes Rahul the senior-most opener in the squad, meaning it’ll be he who will have to lead the charge from the front with the bat.
The only other openers in the squad are Priyank Panchal, who is yet to have played international cricket, and Mayank Agarwal, whose vulnerability against pace has been laid bare over the past 18 months, so all hopes of a half-decent foundation rests on Rahul. He simply cannot afford to fail.
But even putting the seniority factor aside, India, in the absence of Rohit, will desperately need Rahul to go big in the series. Particularly with the entire middle-order out of form and the management still undecided over who plays at No.5 and No.6.
India finished the suspended tour of England with a 2-1 lead, but it is worth remembering that both the victories were set up by the bowlers, with the batting remarkably revolving around two batters and a bunch of occasional cameos from the others, who on most occasions were also bowlers.
Rohit and Rahul were the only Indians to average over 35 and score over 300 runs in England, and it was the foundation they set up-front that kept the side stable.
With the team now having lost its best batsman due to injury, there will be significant pressure on Rahul to, at the very least, match his heroics from four months ago.
In England, Rahul showed that his newly-adopted technique, coupled with excellent off-stump awareness (knowing when and what exactly to leave), enables him to negate even the most extreme of conditions.
The difference there, though, was that the weight of expectation was low, given he was an eleventh-hour replacement who was not originally the first choice. Needless to say, he had a calm and assuring senior presence on the other side in the form of Rohit.
Here, the challenge for Rahul will be to reproduce what he did in England, impact-wise, only this time being the senior himself and knowing that he ‘has’ to succeed.
A first-of-its-kind challenge for him in the longest format.
A series that could have serious future implications
The absurd amount of openers in the system in India means that despite being named vice-captain, Rahul is far from assured of a guaranteed long-term spot in the XI. Particularly with the next stretch of Tests happening in the sub-continent, where Agarwal has shown that he’s as good as any in the world. For all he knows, therefore, a disastrous series could put Rahul back to square one.
Contrarily, however, who knows what might unfold should he turn out to be a standout performer in yet another SENA tour? It could end up revitalizing a career that inexplicably stalled for three years. It is one thing subverting expectations during a comeback series, but to double down on it by excelling in yet another away tour would be enough for Rahul to realize that nothing can stop him from hitting the heights he was once destined to hit.
Or maybe, a stellar showing here could end up making Rahul a serious, permanent vice-captaincy candidate somewhere down the line, even in red-ball cricket. The possibilities are endless.
If given a choice, though, you’d think he would really just want one thing. To take back home from South Africa a fond memory he can cling on to for the rest of his life.