As he trudged back towards the dressing room, his stumps splayed, Karun Nair’s eyes meandered to the giant screen on the ground. There was nothing in the dead pitch that vaguely suggested mischief. He was batting fluently, Australia’s seamers were flat and he seemed to have covered the line of that particular delivery. But, as the replay showed, the Josh Hazlewood delivery contrived to slither in, brush Nair’s pad and blow the stumps midway. It was only his third outing after the triple hundred against England in Chennai. Normally, a Test match triple hundred tends to give a batsman the licence to fail in a fair few innings if not Test matches. In Nair’s case, however, that Ranchi failure felt the rope’s end was fast approaching.
It finally came on Sunday when he was shown the door to make way for a returning Rohit Sharma in the 16-man squad for the three-Test series against Sri Lanka beginning later this month. All-rounder Hardik Pandya gets maiden Test call while KL Rahul takes up his spot top of the order after recovering from a shoulder injury. Shikhar Dhawan misses out despite his rich form in the fifty-over format. However, it’s Nair exclusion that makes for a poignant case study. In the two months between Chepauk and Ranchi, Nair got only one Test, playing as an extra batsman on a treacherous Bangalore pitch. There he made 23 and 0, enough to make him a nervous wreck, which perhaps resulted in that lapse in the next match in Ranchi.
Those who have seen him progress through the domestic ranks would vouch for that self-detrimental trait of his. His body language blares it aloud. The otherwise cheerful, ever-smiling youngster can suddenly seem a man torn. It can also be deciphered as the frustration of an over-eager batsman, who wants to make each of his outing count, and who knows that he’s in fine touch to amass runs. At Chinnaswamy, on a vicious turner, he looked the most comfortable Indian batsman in the first innings. Then arrived that hare-brained moment. He stepped out of the crease and was beaten trying to play a defensive stroke. The second-innings dismissal — bowled by Mitchell Starc — too was avoidable, if only he resisted the big drive off the very first ball he faced. Karun rarely resorts to such strokes even in domestic cricket. Or, even in T20 cricket.
By the time he came to the final Test in Dharamsala, he conveyed the impression of a man enduring a potentially career-threatening slump of his life, and it transmitted into his tetchiness in the middle. He perished playing Nathan Lyon on the back foot on a treacherous surface. His early IPL campaign, where he was also his side’s skipper, was but an extension of his unsettled mindset, though towards the end he seemed to have regained his confidence. Nair credited the comeback to the soothing influence of Dravid, and he can in the next few weeks look forward to more of Dravid’s advice and motivational speeches during India’s A tour to South Africa.
The moment Nair was named in the squad for the A tour, whispers were abound that he wouldn’t make the cut for the Sri Lanka series. Maybe, you could argue that he deserved more chances — for he hadn’t looked too much out of depth as out of mind — but then there isn’t much of a wriggle room for failure in this highly-competent (and competitive) batting side. But it’s not as if Rohit didn’t deserve a comeback memo. The 30-year-old was grossly unfortunate that his thigh injury coincided with a progressive, if not the most consistent, phase of his Test career. In the New Zealand series, he strung together three highly utilitarian half-centuries. The 82 in Kolkata was of match-defining value, perhaps the most responsible of his Test knocks, without the usual frills and self-destructive impulses, conforming to the old-fashioned put-your-heads-down template.
While Kohli’s isn’t a very hierarchy-fixated team, it does respect precedence and continuity. Nair was benched to accommodate a back-from-injury Ajinkya Rahane in the very Test after his triple hundred. So when Rohit was fit again, it was only fitting that he was given another break. There’s also no hiding the fact that Kohli is an admirer of Rohit’s batting—he, in fact, advertises the skipper’s vision of aggression-at-all-costs batting. Strategy-wise, too, Sharma brings a lot to the table. In the limited-over versions, you can always spot Kohli talking to MS Dhoni and Rohit.
On his part, Karun shouldn’t feel gutted. With India scheduled to tour South Africa later this year, a rich haul of runs could press his case for a speedy comeback. And he can work alongside a man who knows more than a thing or two about getting runs in South Africa.
The squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (v-c), Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, M Shami, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund.