Not the IPL, it's Covid bolstering the Ajinkya Rahane comeback
Ajinkya Rahane's transformation into a T20 beast for Chennai Super Kings (CSK) may have coincided with an unexpected Test match comeback, but the IPL has nothing to do with the Mumbaikar's return ahead of the World Test Championship (WTC) final against Australia.
Over time, it has become convenient to think of Indian selectors as irrational, imprudent beings sitting in the comfort of AC rooms and dictating players' fortunes. But they are not. They are smarter, wiser and more pragmatic than the inexperienced eyes that judge their decisions and vision.
It doesn't help that post-selection press conferences and communication have seemingly become a thing of the past within the BCCI operational hierarchy. But here's the thing: the selectors aren't responsible for organising those. The board is. The selectors are answerable to the fans, whose emotional investment and faith is the lifeblood of the sport. But they can't directly address the fans, for those are the boundaries set for them by their employer, who happens to be the game's most powerful bulldog.
A chief selector was sacked ahead of a major Test series recently for unprofessionally giving away crucial information and defaming players' behaviour in a sting, not helping the impressions on the outside. But such cases are rare and shall not be used to paint a picture as a whole.
It's no effort to absolve them from mistakes and criticism, which is perfectly valid, but the selectors are sitting ducks to whatever bricks get thrown their way on the outside. Like historically the umpires for every marginal decision. Or, these days, the NCA coaches for every injury. They can't respond to your abuse, your meme or the next joke you love to crack because your followers feed your ego by pressing likes and retweets. Telling people what they want to hear, not what they need to understand, is the easiest means to gain supporters on social media. And since the communication channels are broken, the knives tend to be sharper with brash anger hidden beneath each comment.
The subconscious or conscious element of selection judgement is that fans have reached a stage wherein they believe the selectors aren't fit for purpose. The additional consequence of improper communication being that it's now reckoned to be a job where the most convenient and the easiest route is embarked upon. Far from it. In truth, as fans, we're left fetching our bets blindfolded, trying to bridge gaps within our heads, because we don't know and haven't been told exactly why a decision was made.
Why India had to go back to Ajinkya Rahane
That is at the crux of the narrative behind the Ajinkya Rahane move. That the IPL 2023 is in centre stage, relishing an unabashed presence in the public conscience was bound to lead to arguments that the T20 league is being used as a base metric to determine India's Test match selection. Essentially, these are emotional musings and long-held frustration coming to the fore.
The best means to assert the thinking behind the move when the communication lines are blurred would be to give the selectors the benefit of the doubt and connect the dots without looking at a particular decision in isolation of the circumstances it is made in. In Rahane's case, it's not the IPL, it's the widespread and doubling-down impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and injuries that have allowed him to claw his way back.
Let's first address the injuries, for that one is a little less complex. With Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer ruled out, India are approaching the WTC final against the Aussies with a big hole in their middle order. Just when the two players were becoming an essential part of India's transition years, they have hit a roadblock and may not be available for selection in Tests until next year. In ideal terms, India would've loved to have Pant walking in at No.5 to take down an old ball at The Oval against Pat Cummins and his men, leaving his imprint and impact on the game. But his accident has dented the plans irrevocably.
India could've looked in the direction of KL Rahul, but it says something about the confidence that the struggling opener seemingly inspires about him that even his potential move down the order couldn't dissuade the selectors from going back to Rahane. And, as harsh as it may sound, of what he showed in front and behind the stumps during the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, KS Bharat would count himself lucky to have retained his spot as the designated wicketkeeper. Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan weren't that fortunate, and dare one says so, rightfully.
Then there is the sad departure from the scene for Hanuma Vihari, who admittedly looked a misfit at No.3 when Cheteshwar Pujara was dropped for the Sri Lanka series but could've been a plug in the lower middle-order if not for losing his form to such extent he could average a measly 35 facing Ranji attacks over 14 innings this season, whereas Ajinkya Rahane top-scored for Mumbai on comeback with 634 runs at 57.63, arguably a lot of it coming against the weaker opponents.
But it's not really the Ranji Trophy runs, they may have helped, but they have been the enablers, not the cause. If that was the case, the prolific Sarfaraz Khan, who has been breaking records with the bat over the past three seasons, would've gotten the nod ahead of him. Selection is about moving forward, not backwards as we know. But the Sarfaraz case is where Covid realities and their effects reinforce themselves. The selectors aren't unaware of the young Mumbaikar's unprecedented domination. It's just that they don't feel absolutely convinced that his heavy-scoring streak at the first-class level is a prelude to Test match runs for India, especially for a litmus test overseas.
Covid has denied them an opportunity to put Sarfaraz through the quality test and bolster his ascent into the Test squad. As much as the fans feel pain for the youngster's misery and continuous rejection, the truth is that his record-breaking run has coincided with times when the quality of the Ranji Trophy has only worsened through the pandemic.
While the 2020-21 season was cancelled, the following two editions of the Ranji Trophy had their groups and format compromised to fit in a small window for logistical and medical ease amidst restrictions. Consequently, not until the just-concluded season, could the BCCI avoid heavy mismatches on the field or properly bring back the Elite-Plate divide, which the players from the top teams thoroughly enjoyed and blasted opposition attacks to put themselves in contention.
On top of it, the regular chain of 'A' series home and away, pioneered by Rahul Dravid, which gave wings to current Test match incumbents Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj before they made their debuts, has been missing in the pandemic world, denying the selectors and the management any real chance to filter out domestic performers. The need for enlarged and alternate international squads in an inhumane schedule with clogging of suspended fixtures has only kept the 'A' tours off. It's not cruel nitpicking, more realism, but the moment Sarfaraz travelled with India 'A' for away series in South Africa and Bangladesh, or played for the alternate side in India versus New Zealand, his returns dipped. That wouldn't have helped him or the number of other strong Ranji performers, say Yashasvi Jaiswal, Rajat Patidar and Abhimanyu Easwaran.
Covid has led to an unavoidable distrust of the quality of first-class performances. As compromised the quality has perhaps always been for what is a 38-team domestic set-up, things were more manageable in the pre-pandemic days when you had full-fledged Ranji seasons and a good supply of 'A' tours. Siraj and Gill benefited out of it.
An argument is usually made that Covid has impacted the rest of the world, too. But we seldom recognise India have felt the Covid disruption more than other countries. Australia can realistically organise the Sheffield Shield in three designated venues, for its first-class set-up requires managing just six teams and six state territories. India must sneak past multiple geographical hurdles and restrictions through 29 states and 7 union territories just to put a full season of 38 teams on the map. With or without Covid, it remains a herculean task, for which the BCCI should be credited immensely.
Things might change in a couple of years' time as the world sits on the heels of the viral outbreak, but India have a Test championship final to be played in less than two months. A quick, even if grudging, backtrack on a player they sacked for consistently low returns is perhaps a pragmatic compromise from the selectors, especially since it's Rahane, who, even when going through the mud, retained zeal about him against pace-dominant attacks and managed to play innings of some high impact value from time to time.
The selectors couldn't have introduced a young talent at the world stage to face an attack as deep and robust as Australia possess, and so, you have the backing and the fresh lease of life offered to the known and the tried and tested. Why, Virat Kohli has been backed through the strife and Pujara was brought back.
Now Rahane might fail to repay this trust, and you may call them out in retrospect for stepping backwards and critique their judgement and sense for the job, but do bear in mind, the selectors had no other safe option.