kl-rahul

On Wednesday (January 2) morning, as India’s players checked in to the Sydney Cricket Ground for their only practice session ahead of the final Test, they were greeted by a huge congregation of fans, primarily but not exclusively of Indian origin. (LIVE SCORE: India vs Australia, 4th Test)

The spectators lined the barricades that kept them away from the players when they made their way from the dressing-room to the nets facilities, patiently waiting for their heroes to acknowledge their presence. Young and old, men and women, boys and girls, they had their cellphones ready for the ubiquitous selfie, and pieces of paper and pen for the occasional autograph, gradually going out of fashion; to their unfettered delight, a majority of the players obliged their requests. (ALSO READ: Unflappable Cheteshwar Pujara carries India to 303/4)

Virat Kohli was clearly the cynosure, and the hugely popular Indian captain won himself a few hundred more diehard fans as he happily posed for pictures, smiling spontaneously and looking unhurried even though he was still only making his way to the nets. (ALSO READ: 1000 balls for Cheteshwar Pujara in 2018-19 Border-Gavaskar Trophy)

Like many other team-mates, KL Rahul also followed in his skipper’s footsteps on his way back after his batting stint, but the characteristic electric smile was nowhere in evidence. There was a grimness to his demeanour that indicated a man wrestling with inner demons. Rahul shuffled along with heavy feet as if carrying the load of the world on his shoulders. (ALSO READ: Shane Warne once again questions Peter Handscomb’s technique)

These haven’t been easy times for the Karnataka opener. After three ordinary innings and a chancy 44 in the fourth, he was dropped from the XI for the third Test against Australia in Melbourne, not unexpected given that he had only managed 48 runs on tour. Mayank Agarwal, his old friend from Under-13 cricket back in Bangalore, took Rahul’s place in the XI, and immediately showed how he had amassed 3,000 runs in the last 12 months with polished knocks of 76 and 42.

Rohit Sharma’s absence through paternity leave opened the door for Rahul to return to the XI as Gade Hanuma Vihari dropped down to a more familiar No. 6 position for the Pink Test at the SCG. When Rahul walked out alongside Agarwal, it was the realization of a childhood dream for the best buddies – to open for India in Test cricket. These are the stuff of fairytales; for it to play itself out in real life must have been a moment of pride and fulfillment for the two protagonists.

The stars, it seemed, had aligned themselves quite favourably in Rahul’s corner. Not only was his best friend a mere 22 yards away, he was also returning to the venue where, four years back, he had made a sparkling maiden century in just his second Test after a miserable debut at the MCG. If one was looking for omens, there seemed nothing more propitious.

And yet, Rahul lasted a measly seven minutes and six deliveries. Watching his tortured stay, the less informed might have looked in disbelief had they been told that this man has two Twenty20 International centuries, and stacked up half-centuries in seven consecutive Test innings between March and August 2017. He was batting from poor memory; it was painful to watch, and you had to feel for the young man.

The argument for Rahul’s inclusion in the playing XI – one can only guess, in the absence of official word – might be that he is the future which Murali Vijay is not, and therefore must be backed. Laudable as that line of thinking is, if Rahul’s mind is as addled as it appears to be and there isn’t enough time during the series for technical course-corrections, he might be better off just sitting back and recharging his batteries with an eye on the future. From the outside, it looks as if Rahul’s nerves and confidence are both shot, and that manifested itself all too overtly during his troubled stay.

Agarwal tried to talk his mate through the tricky opening despite himself being beaten on the outside edge and the inside in Mitchell Starc’s first over of the match, but that didn’t seem to make an impression on Rahul. He cut a lonely figure in the middle after his first scoring shot, an edged four off his first delivery of the game from Starc that scooted through to third-man. There were a couple of more outside edges that died before reaching the slip cordon, and the only ball he middled was the one before he got out, a short one that he went back to and defended solidly.

The next delivery, from Josh Hazlewood, drew his willow, bat-face opened, magnetically towards it, and the ball scooted away off half-bat at a comfortable height to first slip. Rahul stood a while, head bowed, while Agarwal commiserated silently from the other end. Then, he dragged himself off the park, resigned to his fate and powerless to fight it.

Rahul has one more innings to make something of a tour that has gone from bad to worse in the last four weeks. Maybe he will try to blast his way out of trouble, like he did with brief success in the second innings in Adelaide. Or maybe, he will take a leaf from his phlegmatic and admirable friend, who has looked totally at home in the cauldron of Test cricket, and guts and grind and battle and scrap it out.

Rahul was the early shining star that Agarwal used as motivation in his journey towards Test acceptance. Today, the roles are reversed. The one-time poster boy is in the middle of a prolonged drought, while late-bloomer Agarwal is on a high, with two half-centuries and a lowest of 42 in his three Test hits. In an ideal world, Rahul will hit his straps at the second time of asking at the SCG, and he and Agarwal will take their dream as starry-eyed little boys to its logical conclusion with a meaty alliance as the final Test unfolds. But let’s not hold our breath.