In Virat Kohli’s absence, his deputy, KL Rahul became the Test captain. Far from a certainty in the team, till only a few Tests back, what catapulted Rahul into this leadership role? Last year’s 129 against England, at Lord’s, was followed by a string of low scores. But Ajinkya Rahane’s indifferent batting form, uncertainty over his Test spot, continuous non-selection for the white-ball format, made him lose his vice-captaincy.
Meanwhile, Rahul is more a less a certainty across the white-ball format. Four 50s in his last five T20I innings (vs Afghanistan, Namibia, Scotland in the T20 World Cup) and another against New Zealand at Ahmedabad. But even before this, he was the Punjab Kings’ skipper, and possibly one of India’s T20 batting mainstays. His ODI numbers are equally impressive.
Added to Kohli’s absence, was Rohit Sharma’s absence – perhaps the only other batting certainty across formats for India.
Yet, Punjab Kings under KL Rahul were far from impressive. Whether it is the squad or team selection, Punjab has been a largely rudderless IPL entity. Yet for a while, such has been the preoccupation with Kohli and Rohit, that Rahul the batsman, and not Rahul the leader was picked, first, for vice-captaincy, then almost by default, for the captaincy at the Wanderers.
India’s senior-most Test players, Cheteshwar Pujara (94 Tests) and Ravichandran Ashwin (83 Tests) much like Rahane (81 Tests) are not all-format players. KL Rahul is, by the look of it, being slated to be one. After his exceptional match-winning innings at Centurion, Rahul’s stock rose manifold.
Rahul of 42 Tests, batting average of 36, nowhere close to a Test mainstay, with 2 of his 7 Test centuries in his last two series (both overseas), was made captain. In addition to captaincy, Rahul opens the batting. In addition to negotiating the new ball, he also has to secure his spot in the team.
It’s out of such adversity that strong leaders are born. Yet as has been obvious in Rahul’s IPL captaincy, leading a weak batting lineup has thwarted his own batsmanship making him even opine that strike rate is over-rated. If Pujara said that, it would be understandable. But when someone with a strike-rate of 142 in T20Is says that, it calls for thought. Is Rahul thinking too much? How did David Warner lead an equally weak SRH batting line up, yet not compromise on his attacking play or leadership for years? Much like Rahul, Warner was captain, opener and batting mainstay of his IPL franchise. Rahul is not yet 30, Warner is 35, and perhaps there is still time for him to come into his own. Or is there? Is he too laidback, in his own shell, to lead and inspire a team that needs that extra push?
Perhaps the greatest disservice by making Rahul captain or even the deputy is that it could dilute the impact of the Rahul-Mayank opening, one that is even more critical overseas. If Mayank Agarwal were to play a winning hand in the last Test, would the selectors have the audacity to drop its interim Test captain when Rohit Sharma returns? Unlikely.
Although Mayank has played only 18 Tests (out of which 11 are overseas), he has a batting average of 45.38 (more than Rahul, Rahane and Pujara and only less than Kohli). In Rahul’s absence, Mayank could be the next Punjab Kings’ captain. He is yet to make his T20I debut, and has played only 5 ODIs, but in India’s batting merry go round, he could easily be the next flavour. Just as Unmukt Chand was, not too long ago.
Mayank is barely a year older than Rahul, both are good friends, with a batting understanding that goes back a long way. In the cryptic ways of Indian cricket, the continuous absences of Kohli and Rohit, Rahul and Mayank can forge a batting renaissance in Indian cricket. Even be the next Sehwag-Gambhir. Just as Sehwag-Gambhir were from Delhi, Rahul-Mayank are from Bangalore. Both are mates too. Both can be equally attacking on top, while Mayank's prowess against spin is no less than Gambhir’s in his heyday. Rahul can be just as destructive as Sehwag, scoring all-round the wicket. And much like Sehwag, Rahul hasn’t shown any leadership qualities at his IPL franchise. Both have Punjab Kings in common, moving from their city franchise to it.
If and when Rohit returns, how will they accommodate Mayank? Will selection be able to sever long, accomplished batting ties – will it be prepared to move on? Also, considering Rohit’s continuous fitness problems, he may even decide to ration his Test cricket. If not retire from it altogether and focus only on white-ball cricket.
Shikhar Dhawan last played a Test match in September, 2018. He was not part of India’s T20 World Cup squad last year. But he did lead India for the twin white-ball series in Sri Lanka. Over the years, he has been one of India’s leading ODI batsmen; as also one of Delhi Capitals’ highest scorers repeatedly. The leadership role eluded him at DC, and he wasn’t retained by the franchise. Dhawan is part of the ODI series in South Africa. Mayank is not.
However, it seems inevitable, that if India are to win their first Test series in South Africa, their openers will have to lead the way. A telling contribution from Mayank, could still force his late inclusion for the ODIs.
Even if Kohli returns to lead in Cape Town, if he continues to remain absent with the bat, the noises will only increase. It may not be too far-flung to even see him relinquish the Test captaincy too. And therein lies the opportunity for Rahul-Mayank to stamp their presence on this fading batting order.