Who should be India's Rishabh Pant-sized replacement for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy?
Cricket felt insignificant after Rishabh Pant's disastrous car crash. Ever so closer to the New Year's eve, an otherwise stale winter morning seemed gloomy and soul-crushing in more ways than one: the news concerned a 25-year-old young turk at the height of his prowess, just about surviving a brutal accident when all he wanted was to make a surprise visit to his family.
The immature and unethical coverage of the accident meant that a lot of the images and the worrisome clips of the same brought the multiple injuries and bruises that Pant's body received to the centre of the public eye. It wasn't until the declaration that the player stands out of danger and is being looked after well did the Indian fans breathe a sigh of relief.
They knew Pant is unlikely to serve them on the field anytime soon but were more than happy to acknowledge he is on a recovery trail. Life has moved on quietly since and what is perhaps the biggest assignment on the Indian Test match calendar is now staring at us.
India won't have their game-changer available for the looming Border-Gavaskar Trophy is a fact that would've sunk in by now and gotten the think tank ticking, with head coach Rahul Dravid and skipper Rohit Sharma at the forefront to determine Pant's ideal replacement, someone who can not just fill his imposing presence with the bat but also his rapidly improving glovework behind the stumps.
The selectors have trimmed the list down to two individuals, although the team management would believe they have three options up their sleeves. Among the selectors' designated wicketkeeping replacements are KS Bharat and Ishan Kishan, one an Andhra veteran, the other a Jharkhand maverick. Both uncapped.
Kishan's selection turned quite a few heads and raised quite a few eyebrows as it was a left-field choice, based mainly on his limited-overs performances, with his first-class record inspiring not-so-great-but-okayish vibes. The base idea seemingly was to plug one left-hander's absence with another.
He averages 38.76 domestically with the bat after 48 matches and 82 innings. Evidently a safe glover, Kishan, however, has tended to carry multiple loopholes about his batting at the international stage, ones that have held the 24-year-old back from being a consistent force. Why, his double hundred in Chattogram was followed by a spree of low scores versus New Zealand the very next time he batted for India.
Against an Australian attack as robust and incisive as the one India will face over four Tests, Kishan is as much of a risky punt as perhaps Bharat would be. Being around the set-up for a long time now and showing ability that puts him a step ahead of domestic and India 'A' levels, the player would've been a shoo-in to the side immediately after Pant's unfortunate ouster if the opposition concerned wouldn't pose as hefty a challenge as this one.
Ever since they sealed the fate of inarguably India's finest modern-day Test glover Wriddhiman Saha and promoted Bharat in the hierarchy, he has been doing an impressive job on stand-in duties with the glove during Tests and exhibiting his promise with the bat on tour games. His last such encounter saw him top-score with a 70 in a strenuous first-innings for the Indians versus Leicestershire, backing it up with a second-innings 43 off 98 while opening the batting.
Bharat's first-class average, though, belies his batting abilities a bit or perhaps gives a truer account of the same over an enlarged sample size: he averages even lower than Kishan at 37.95 apiece over 86 competitive red-ball fixtures and 135 innings that have fetched him 4,707 runs, which may just discourage the think-tank from following the pecking order and think a little out of the box.
KL Rahul the man for the job?
The filter of challenge presented by an Australian Test attack with those Bharat would've faced in the Ranji Trophy could be a scenario that opens doors for KL Rahul's place of incumbency as a wicketkeeper-batter, operating from the middle order as opposed to opening the innings. The physical manifestations making top-order batting duties and glovework two skills absolutely detached from each other in Tests, his demotion in the batting line-up, however, could be necessary for more reasons than one.
Easily the best of the batting options among the three discussed here, Rahul's Test career is at an interesting stand-point. Three series into his Test comeback at the height of the English summer back in 2021, his average from these assignments in the UK, South Africa and Bangladesh across 9 Tests and 18 innings reads 33.22. Take Tests in Dhaka and Chattogram aside, and there was a pattern that unveiled itself in England and South Africa, where after one big score each, Rahul's performances endured a wane.
Usually, a big score right at the start of a trip infuses confidence and security in a player, instils faith in his skill and spurs him onto a few more big scores. With Rahul, it has been the other way around. His output has dipped drastically after shining through the initial bouts. It doesn't help that the last four years that Rahul has spent in the Test team have coincided with an unprecedented bowling era, where high-quality attacks and demanding surfaces have made run-scoring on an enormous task.
When Rahul got dropped from the Test team for two years after the 2019 West Indies tour, his previous 15 Tests and 27 innings, spanning tours to South Africa, England, and Australia, fetched him only 578 runs at 22.23 apiece. There was this narrative that the downward spiral maybe a result of India varying his spot but as many as 23 of those innings arrived while opening the batting. It's a slot that Rahul has regained since his comeback but without really setting the scene on fire.
But there is a definite improvement: India would take this version of KL Rahul any day of the week above the one that was struggling technically and mentally on that torrid trip to the Caribbean three years back. What is perhaps the need of the hour is to ease his life and let him face more of the old ball against more tired bowlers in operation.
He could fit in at No.5 or 6 in this line-up, as Pant does, and be asked to free up with his Test match game a lot more than have shackles imposed on him by new-ball anchoring duties. Rahul was previously, too, set to bat in the middle-order in Tests on his comeback assignment in England 2021 until Shubman Gill got injured.
Now, in a life reversal, it is Gill, for whom he could leave the opening spot vacant, for the kind of form that the prodigious young right-hander continues to display, it would be a blunder to leave him out, especially for an Indian batting line-up short of runs and confidence.
While even Gill would perhaps be best served playing a middle-order role in the future, him opening the innings on current form alongside skipper Rohit and Rahul batting No.5 or 6 would only bolster the strength of a line-up, which also has to fill the gap left open by the injury to an in-form Shreyas Iyer. With stalwarts Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli at No.3 and 4, that is a healthier cushion for a Suryakumar to own the Iyer spot for the Nagpur Test and for Ravindra Jadeja to return at No.7.
As for Rahul's keeping, Indian cricket fandom would be chuffed to remember the quality of his glovework on a spiteful turner to Ashwin and Jadeja in Galle on the 2015 tour of Sri Lanka, where he hardly left anything and didn't seem out of place despite being on stand-in duties. He has been very safe with the gloves in limited-overs cricket. Yes, the white ball does significantly less off the pitch and in the air, but the technical precision on display has been eye-catching.
Individually, too, KL Rahul would relish the challenge and the chance to bat at a spot that has tended to give his ODI game an immense uplift over time, one that is perhaps best-suited to his mental make-up and abilities at the Test level, too, extracting maximum out of a player that should've by now established himself among the pantheon of modern-day greats but has meandered along without ever building a successful base.