After India lost the second Test at Perth during their tour of Australia in December 2018, the management decided to drop both the regular openers – Murali Vijay and KL Rahul. The duo had collectively scored 22 runs in the Test across 4 innings. Such was the level of frustration with the failure of openers that the team replaced them with a debutant in Mayank Agarwal and a middle-order batsman in Hanuma Vihari for the third Test.
Australia is a tough place to tour for senior cricketers let alone a debutant. Agarwal however, did not show any signs of nerves and scored a brisk innings of 76. Vihari played out 66 balls before getting out and ensured that he did his job of seeing through the new ball while being in the unfamiliar role of an opener. The openers helped India seize the initiative on the first morning of the Test that laid the foundation for an eventual victory.
Rohit Sharma ruled himself out of the fourth Test to attend the birth of his daughter. Vihari was back in the middle order while Rahul, probably preferred over Vijay because of the future ahead, was slotted back in as the other opener. Rahul’s was a selection to fill the XI rather than one on merit. A two-week layover could not have changed an issue that has persisted for more than a year. The inevitable occurred in the second over on day 1 when Rahul edged one to slip to end his nine-ball stay.
The events leading up to the fourth Test at Sydney saw Rahul have a Test average of 21.7 across 23 innings since the beginning of 2018 - his worst in a span of a year. His average is the worst for any batsman who has played 20 or more innings during this period.
Five years earlier to the events at Sydney, Rahul scored a spectacular 100 at the same venue in just his second Test. After a forgetful debut in Melbourne that saw him playing in the middle order and get out on three and one to mistimed slogs, Rahul got to play as an opener at Sydney and grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Rahul’s position as an opener came at the expense of Shikhar Dhawan, a successful white-ball player and party to a Test career that started with a bang and tapered-off significantly.
Unlike Dhawan, Rahul started his career as an ideal Test player with solid red-ball technique and patience. Such was his focus on red-ball cricket that before 2016 he had played more first-class games than List A and T20. The IPL franchise, RCB, bought him from SRH in the 2016 season that turned out to be a turning point in his white-ball fortunes. His stint at RCB earned him an India call-up for ODIs and T20s. Since then, he has often been a part of the squad across all formats.
A shoulder injury ruled him out of the 2017 IPL. When the squads reshuffled at the start of the 2018 season, KXIP bought Rahul as their primary Indian player.
The year 2016 saw Rahul at his peak across all formats. He followed that up with a decent 2017 when he scored seven consecutive 50+ scores in Tests, most of which came in the home series against Australia on pitches that were rank turners in the first two Tests. While his red-ball numbers were still better than the white-ball ones in 2017, the gap was closing. By 2018, the order had reversed and he averaged more in T20 and List A than First-Class cricket. Such was the impact of his renewed priorities that his overall numbers at the international level now stand at a T20I average of 42.8, ODI average of 39.11 and a Test average 35.27.
A shift in mindset due to the responsibilities with Kings XI or a change in technique to suit white-ball strokes or decrease in patience due to change in muscle memory owing to more number of white-ball games can all be equally considered as factors resulting in the drop in his red-ball numbers.
A dip in performance for a year has been a part of the careers of many good batsmen. With Rahul, the worrying factor is the manner of his dismissals. Since 2018, 13 of Rahul’s 22 Test dismissals have been bowled or LBW (9 bowled). His back and across movement makes him vulnerable to the incoming ball but the number of times he is being bowled will concern any top-order batsman. Being bowled nine out of his last 13 innings made Rahul Dravid contemplate retirement. With KL Rahul the story does not end here. Seven out of the remaining nine dismissals have been caught in the slips or keeper. He has struggled to the incoming balls and has not demonstrated the patience and judgment for the away going balls that do not threaten his stumps. As a result, he has been a walking wicket at the Test level since 2018. For good players, it is possible to rectify a particular weakness like how Virat Kohli worked on his issues while facing the balls at his fourth stump or outside. It can be a coach’s nightmare when a player needs improvement on both directions of the moving ball.
The Indian team has always been solid at home. The great Indian batsmen have always been successful outside the sub-continent as well. Rahul’s failures in South Africa, England and Australia are bound to dent his confidence and that of the management.
If Prithvi Shaw did not injure himself in the tour game in Australia, Rahul would have been relieved of his misery before the Sydney Test. Now Shaw’s carelessness, that had him banned until mid-November, has Rahul facing his demons again. With six Tests before Shaw is available again, Rahul has a lifeline to make a case for himself in the Test squad. A failure this time might be the end of the rope for him.