How much of Dravid's sympathy does KL Rahul truly deserve?
It has died down a bit over the past three days, but the shocking hullaballoo around KL Rahul's Test match spot had threatened to take uglier turns. It started with former India pacer Venkatesh Prasad going on a virtual war against the player, being overly nasty and perhaps, disrespectful, even though he made sense in putting Rahul's unsatisfactory record through the knife.
That Rahul has been a subject of constant trolling and criticism over the years was expected to earn Prasad some friends down that path. But he indirectly attracted naysayers questioning his own motives, including those who have also played for India. Prasad may have learnt a lesson: you could be holding a well-meant opinion but presenting the same in a respectful manner, and, dare one say, not carrying a reputation dented for boorish political remarks, is key.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is an individual whose playing experience compels him to treat the struggles of a struggler with empathy. It's one Rahul for another Rahul, but head coach Dravid is pleading time for his ailing opening bat to rediscover his mojo. At the crux of Dravid's argument is runs made on comeback trips to England and South Africa, where his namesake was perhaps India's biggest positive.
"I think he needs to trust his processes," the great man told Star Sports. "This is just a phase, he has been one of our most successful overseas openers. He’s got hundreds in South Africa and England, we’ll continue to back him. I believe he has the quality and class to come out of this. It is great working with this unit, managing formats is the most difficult part. But there’s not a lot of technical coaching, just simple conversations and challenging them, and giving them a pat on the back when they do well."
But how much empathy does Rahul truly deserve at a time when India are leaving out an in-form Shubman Gill, whose presence could bolster a unit short of runs in what are tricky conditions, aimed to enhance the skill gap between the Indians and the visiting Australian side at the heels of a potential World Test Championship (WTC) final rematch at The Oval.
Dravid's judgement and backing could well result in a match-defining ton on Day 1 of the Indore Test and lead to a career turnaround for what is still a player aged 30. But here's the thing about KL Rahul: backing from the previous managements under previous head coaches, too, has not quite resolved the mystery or unlocked the player that everyone sees in him. He has remained the skeleton of a batter envisioned about him, an invisible great.
How long would Rahul get the Dravid shield?
At an age when batters are supposed to approach their peaks and undergo sustained excellence on the field, Rahul has been struggling for breathing space in the middle for more than four years now, he is averaging 25.82 from his past 26 Tests and 48 innings since the start of 2018.
Dravid talked about the runs in England and South Africa, but failed to acknowledge how the player's returns dipped on both the trips after initial few performances. Rahul started with an 84 and 126 in his first three innings in England 2021. His next four scores? 5, 0, 8 and 17. The right-hander kicked off the subsequent tour of South Africa '21-22 with 123 and 50 in his first three innings? His next three scores? 8, 12 and 10. Despite looking solid in parts and promising a revival, Rahul returned home from those two tours with an average below 39.
Downsizing any noise in the rave of a comeback, Rahul's average since that point has further slipped to just 30.28 from 21 innings. Budget for the bowling era, and that is still well below expectations for a player whose periods of failings have tended to leave room for maximum possible course correcting. This is a cricketer who went through a two-year exile from the Test team because his previous 15 Tests and 27 innings played on critical overseas trips from January 2018 till mid 2019 fetched him just 578 runs at 22.23 apiece, exposing technical and mental chinks about him.
That the team management and selectors kept backing him then and are backing him now, only makes it necessary for that faith to be vindicated with bucket full of runs that have remained elusive with KL Rahul's whole career. We've tended to put his miseries on the mental side of things. Even Dravid believes it's a matter of his statemate "backing his process". But what we don't put through the scanner a lot more is the technique and skill on display with him. Maybe this is a player we're all overestimating based on notable, yet sporadic, performances.
Rahul has centuries at Sydney, Colombo, Jamaica, Chennai, Oval, Lord's and Centurion next to his name. But those are the only centuries he has made in a career marked by a grand total of 81 innings, in which he has crossed fifty less than one-fourth of the time and now has a career average of 33.44. Despite those performances exhibiting the skill and the control you would associate with great players in their pomp, Rahul has never been able to become one himself. Forget greatness, he is yet to establish himself in the team in a career that is closing in on a decade of its existence.
That is telling of a batter essentially reeling from problems versus quality bowling and late movement, be it versus spin or pace. More so pace, off which he averages less than 30 and lasts below eight overs an innings. The corresponding number for spin is 42.7 but Rahul either doesn't last long enough to face spin or tends to take abnormally longer to start off refresh from a fast-bowling assault against him. He is never quite in.
Cricviz published a not-so-surprising stat in relation to Rahul's two-fold struggles after Day 1 of the Nagpur Test: since the start of 2020, he was averaging 34.2 from the first 30 balls of the innings at that point but only 16.77 for the next 60 balls faced - which, Cricviz said, is the lowest for any Test batter in the world with a minimum of 10 innings in this timeframe.
In simple understanding, Rahul does put in his heart and sweat into forming a strong base at the start of his innings but is not able to properly break past the opposition's new-ball attack at any stage. On occasions he does, he is then not able to maximise the effort put in to truly ease the life for himself and his team with a big score. It's a byproduct of gaps in his range and skillset, the root cause of inconsistency that has plagued him.
An example of inconsistency in modern-day Indian Test match cricket can be Ajinkya Rahane. But even Rahane was more undone by the wear and tear that engulfed his game, facing robust attacks in extremely challenging conditions than some obvious holes to his game. He finished as an average player with multiple great knocks, who lost his basic technique by the end, retaining a scrambled headspace, to an extent where even a substantial knock could not revive his best. But one couldn't ever accuse Rahane of lacking skills, especially away from home.
It's where KL Rahul's case is different and why, his periods of struggle have tended to be frequent and persist longer than they do for others.
Why, at a time when Rohit Sharma has pinned his grace as arguably the world's finest Test opener, facing the same opposition attacks in the same set of conditions, Rahul has gone on the other extreme with his career, on the verge of being dropped until perhaps saved by Dravid.
Either the trust shown by the well-versed coach would be repaid or haunt the great man back in Indore. But one thing is for certain: Rahul has not done much to earn his sympathy.