Note: This article has been updated to reflect Mayank Agarwal's unavailability in the first Test
The last time KL Rahul played a Test in England, he equalled the highest score for an Indian batsman in the country since 2002. Before and after the 149 at The Oval in the last Test of the 2018 series, Rahul has averaged a mere 17.25 in 20 innings. Rahul lost his place in the side after the tour to West Indies in August 2019. He might not have travelled to the Caribbean if not for Prithvi Shaw’s unavailability due to an off-field indiscretion. Since then, he has been part of the squad in all the big-ticket series and tours and has been warming the bench in a team that until recently did not believe in practice matches.
Since announcing himself with a knock of 116 in only his second Test in the first tour to Australia in 2014, Rahul the Test specialist moved to become Rahul the white-ball behemoth. However, with no place to fit him at the top of the order in ODIs, India slotted him at number five with a lot of success: an average of 56.6 in 10 innings.
In T20Is, leading up to the World Cup later this year, India have a problem of plenty at the top of the order. It will not be a surprise that Rahul’s push to lower down the order continues in T20I cricket as well.
Coming back to the red-ball game, Rahul has only featured in two first-class games in the last 18 months. However, with India’s vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane struggling with a hamstring, Rahul got an opportunity to bat at number five against the County Select XI in the warm-up match played from July 20th to 22nd. He smashed a century, scoring 101 off 150 deliveries (retired out).
Ahead of the first Test at Trent Bridge in Nottingham on August 4th, there are murmurs that India would slot either Rahul or Hanuma Vihari in the XI. Indian team management has a preference for aggressive options over the traditional batsman who construct their game on defence. Call-ups for Prithvi Shaw and Suryakumar Yadav – two of the most fluent batsmen in India - to England is an example of the mindset. Hence, if a slot opens up, Rahul pipping Vihari should not be a surprise.
Now with Mayank out of the first Test due to a concussion, the likelihood of Rahul making it to the XI has risen exponentially. There are three ways in which Rahul can make the XI:
As an opener (unlikely)
Just like in ODIs, it seems like India have moved on from Rahul as an opener. An injury to Shubman Gill all but confirmed Mayank’s inclusion to join Rohit Sharma at the top for the first Test. However, his unavailability puts India in a conundrum. After Gill's injury, India added Abhimanyu Easwaran – earlier sent as a reserve player – into the main squad. For those uninitiated about India’s domestic cricket, Easwaran has been a successful opener for Bengal’s Ranji Trophy team and was the leading run-scorer for them in the 2018-19 season, averaging 95.66.
Shaw's call-up to the squad is another signal that the management is not looking at Rahul for the opening slot. As Shaw will be available only later in the series, the team has two choices: either to go back to Easwaran or gamble with Cheteshwar Pujara for the opening slot. Even Vihari has opened for India once before - in Sydney in 2019 - but, that might be too big an ask in the alien conditions in England.
In place of an established middle-order batsman (likely)
After missing the warm-up game due to mild swelling around his left upper hamstring, Rahane was back in training last week. This might mean that he is fit to play the first Test. But, if not, it will open a spot at number five for Rahul to try and resurrect his Test career.
"We will continue to reassess, continue to have conversations around what are the things required to strengthen our side and not follow or fall prey to certain patterns," said Virat Kohli after the loss in the World Test Championship final.
A player that will be at the centre of those conversations is Cheteshwar Pujara. India’s rock in their twin success in Australia, Pujara averaged 25.9 in all other countries (including India) in 22 innings during the WTC. His diminishing returns came under a scanner after India failed to lift the WTC mace.
In 2018, India chose to begin the campaign by leaving out Pujara in the first Test and opting for Rahul to bat at three. While Pujara might still retain his place to fill in for Mayank, India have two options for Rahul. Either to go down the 2018 route and have him bat at three or move Kohli and Rahane one spot above and have him bat at five. The latter seems more likely.
In place of an all-rounder (unlikely)
If the day-night Test in Adelaide and the tour to New Zealand offer a template, it that India have preferred to cushion their batting line-up whenever they expect the conditions to be challenging. This has often come at the cost of the only all-rounder in the side, Ravindra Jadeja, who bats at number seven.
The conditions might not be challenging in all five Tests in England. Moreover, in recent times India have been successful while having five bowling options. Also, apart from Rahul, Jadeja was the only other player to be among the runs in the warm-up match, scoring 75 and 51 (retired out). So even if India choose to play someone else at the cost of Jadeja, it might be an extra seamer and not another batsman.
"When I got dropped in 2018 [sic 2019], I had to go back and discuss with coaches, watched a lot of videos to see where I was faltering and try to correct that. I'm happy, time off from Test cricket (has helped). Like they say, failure makes you strong, makes you more focused and determined about the game. It's no different for me. I'm looking forward to the opportunities, trying to stay a lot calmer and more disciplined," expressed Rahul earlier this week.
Those who have seen Rahul bat, often fail to understand how he ends up warming the bench now and again. A situation similar to that with Rohit until he grasped the opportunity as an opener in Test cricket. In Rahul’s case, the revival might come after moving in the opposite direction.