By Anand Vasu
The battle was lost, in Mumbai on Thursday night, but the war might well have been won for KL Rahul. With the national selection committee set to sit down to pick the Indian squad for the World Cup in April 15, Rahul’s century, on the back of other key contributions to Kings XI Punjab, are likely to have settled the uncertainty over his place in the squad that will travel to the United Kingdom.
For long now, key cricketers in the Indian set-up, beginning with Virat Kohli, have said that Indian Premier League performances would not count towards selection for the global 50-over tournament. While it is fair to say that IPL runs alone could and should not be the criterion on which a player is selected, it is also impossible for the selectors to ignore a two-month chunk of cricket at a time when no other competitive matches are at hand for India’s players.
Rahul’s ODI career to date has been a curious one, with 14 appearances staggered over nearly three years since he made his debut in Harare in mid-2016. In the first three games he played, Rahul scored 100, 33 and 63, being dismissed only once, numbers he has since struggled to replicate.
In his defence, Rahul has been hampered by two main factors. The first is the stop-start nature of his career.
After his first three matches, Rahul missed India’s next ODI assignment, against New Zealand at home. Then, in three ODIs against England, he made just 8, 5 and 11, in January 2017. Rahul then sat out the Champions Trophy in England and five ODIs in the West Indies before reappearing for three games in Sri Lanka where he failed to get going (4, 17, 7) and was left out once more. He then did not figure in 18 subsequent ODIs, returning for two ODIs in England and one at the Asia Cup. The next period of exile lasted 17 games before he returned to feature in one match of the five-ODI series against Australia.
Even Rahul’s most strident critics would acknowledge that this chopping and changing hardly set the foundations for someone to play his best cricket, string together performances and contribute to team victories.
And, while this is true, Rahul’s supporters would also concede that returns of 343 runs from 14 matches at an average of 34.3 were the kind of numbers that made it difficult for any team management to carry a player over a length of time.
Added to the in-and-out situation was the fact that Rahul did not enjoy a consistent run in any single batting position. In 14 matches, he has opened the batting and also come in at numbers three, four and five. In half of those games he has opened, but seven innings over such a length of time is hardly a sample size to draw statistical conclusions from.
What works in Rahul’s favour is the manner in which he has made runs in this IPL, building innings rather than going slam-bang, at a time when India’s top order could do with a touch of old fashioned solidity. The timing of his runs play a part too, given that, apart from Virat Kohli, none of India’s top-order incumbents or potential No. 4 candidates has scored runs with any consistency.
From Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma to Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav and Dinesh Karthik, there have been several players who have struggled to put together a body of work that would make the selectors sit up and take notice.
Now the question before the selectors is whether to hand Rahul the opportunity of a lifetime on the biggest stage. And the question before Rahul is whether he will be able to make the most of it within the lifetime of that opportunity, should it come to him.
One thing is for sure, if he does get on that plane to England, the expectation on Rahul to deliver will be immense and if he does not come good, there may be no looking back.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)