Before being recalled to the Test squad for the Sri Lanka series to fill in for the injured Murali Vijay, the selectors’ message to Shikhar Dhawan seemed loud enough: They had begun to sketch beyond him. For, after the Kolkata Test against New Zealand last year, he was seldom considered during India’s perpetual injury-crisis at the top. Such was the desperate extent of it that even an over-the-hill Gautam Gambhir was thrust an unlikely break. Suffice it to say that Dhawan was not even picked for the A tour to South Africa, leave alone being overlooked for Abhinav Mukund in the initial touring squad to Sri Lanka.
His comeback, hence, was partly mitigated by circumstances, and partly by a lack of daring on the selectors’ part. Dhawan has been in fine one-day form. He not only scored truckloads of runs in the Champions Trophy but also looked in imperious touch, batting as though in a trance. He also tightened up his game outside the off-stump considerably, a vulnerability that conspired his meagre returns abroad. It also favoured him that the selectors were conservative enough to not pick someone like Priyank Panchal, the highest run-getter in Ranji Trophy last season. Or even his Gujarat skipper Parthiv Patel, despite him hoarding 128 runs in his last three innings as opener. Gambhir, meanwhile, seems well past his use-by date.
Dhawan, therefore, was the logical, and convenient, choice in such a short notice. There are several factors that work for him. He is vastly experienced, likely to be untroubled by the home-like conditions of Sri Lanka, where he scored his last Test hundred, and moreover is an immensely likeable figure in the dressing room. The players have been often vocal in their praise about him being an ultimate team-man. That he enjoys others’ success. That he helps youngsters. Suresh Raina even termed him “Sufi-like” and his opening partner Vijay, too, has spoken warmly of him in the past. So there aren’t too many crooked eyebrows. Bizarre quandary
After all, he might rekindle his form and stretch his career, and in hindsight the selectors could be justified, but his comeback deflects the focus to another bizarre quandary India have belatedly found themselves in. While they have two extremely pedigreed openers in Vijay and Rahul, the pair has had an uncanny knack of picking, nay wooing, injuries.
It seems the handiwork of some strange forces in conspiracy, as when Vijay returns from an injury, Rahul invariably picks one, or the other way around. Since Rahul’s maiden hundred, at Sydney in 2015, he and Vijay have opened in just eight of the 25 Tests in this span. Specifically, in only 13 innings. Only in the South Africa series was Rahul fit and yet didn’t feature, when he made way for an in-form Dhawan, who incidentally was returning from an injury. While Rahul missed six of these Tests due to one injury or the other, or as in Fatuallah a bout of flu, Vijay was kept out of five Tests in the same span by injuries to finger, wrists and shoulder.
Resultantly, Rahul has had four different partners, besides Vijay—Pujara, Mukund, Dhawan and Parthiv. Vijay had batted with three others—Dhawan, Parthiv and Gambhir. In fact, it was in the first innings against Australia at Ranchi that India’s supposedly best opening pair around brought up their first ever 50-plus partnership. Otherwise, they average just a shade beneath 18 together.
The latter stat shouldn’t spark concern as they have individually prospered, both have gulped up four hundreds each in this span, and it must be a matter of time before they stitched their first hundred-plus partnership. Nonetheless, a pair of injury-susceptible openers lends instability to a team, which should be the last botheration when you are on the road. The sooner they somehow solve the mystery, the better it is for their overseas prospects.
Abhinav, walking on thin ice
It also diverts a bit of attention to Abhinav Mukund, as to whether he, by virtue of being the first-choice standby opener, should be opening with KL Rahul in the first Test at Galle. Recent patterns suggest that he would. In the first Test of the West Indies series, at North Sound, Dhawan was given precedence over Rahul. Later, Karun Nair was dropped right after his triple hundred, when Ajinkya Rahane returned. So, by that precedence, it should be Abhinav and not Dhawan who would pair up with Rahul.
But Abhinav will have sufficient reasons to be badgered by Dhawan’s shadows. A couple of failures would mean Dhawan would supersede him. You can only feel for Abhinav, who has been a consistent accumulator in the domestic circuit for nearly a decade, but seldom was offered the liberty of an extended run.
More failings, and simultaneously a few good knocks by Dhawan, would not only pedal him down the pecking order but also could imperil his international career. It would also imply that Dhawan could board the flight to South Africa. Conversely, even if Dhawan fails, he might still squeeze into a seat in the flight, as India will invariably pack their side with three openers. For, his experience, likeability in the dressing room and the short-form runs would be factored in.