The second-innings dismissal was possibly more garishly outlandish than the first. This is not to say that the outrageous slog-sweep in the first wasn’t. But at least you could give KL Rahul a benefit of doubt, even if only a slight one, for that considering it was his maiden dig at this level.
It’s unlikely the young Karnataka opener would have even dreamt of playing for India a year ago. But here he was at the MCG, playing the Boxing Day Test, and coming in to bat with India in a strong position with over 400 runs on the board. And even the greatest cricketers to have played the game have suffered and perished to debut nerves before. Rahul was only the latest.
His attempted pull-shot off Mitchell Johnson that landed up in Shane Watson’s bucket-like hands at second slip, though, was unforgivable, even for a 22-year-old suddenly pressed into the man’s world for a premature initiation. For, it exposed or rather exemplified the bizarreness surrounding his selection for the third Test.
India were trying to save a Test, and the youngster had been pushed up the order or pushed into the deep end — whichever way you look at it — to play his part. Instead, he tried taking the fastest bowler in the world head-on off just the fifth delivery he faced. At some level, you felt bad for him as the right-hander trudged off the field, his puny figure shrunk by embarrassment and the enormity of the G.
But what was Rahul doing there in the first place? No, not at No.3. But at the centre of the MCG. He had been picked in the squad for Australia as the reserve opener, based on a number of impressive performances at the top of the order for Karnataka and South Zone. Only in five out of 44 first-class innings had he not opened the innings previously. Yet he had been picked to replace Rohit Sharma, ahead of Suresh Raina.
The same Suresh Raina who’s batted a majority of his Test career at No.6 — 16 out of 29 innings to be precise — and who would have been playing in his 18th Test and not his first. The same Suresh Raina who, only four days prior to the Test, had been retained in the BCCI’s Grade A contract list along with the likes of MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli, and ahead of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.
To boot, Raina was also the only reserve middle-order batsman India had carried along for the tour in their 18-member strong squad. So, once the team management decided to dispense with Rohit Sharma after his underwhelming performances with the bat at Adelaide and Brisbane, Raina, you would believe, should have been the natural replacement.
Yet they chose to pick an opener ahead of the seasoned left-hander. By not going with him at the MCG, it’s almost like the team management were saying they were so unconvinced with Raina’s Test match pedigree that they were better off sacrificing a young man who had made the cut for a totally different job description. Not only was the choice unfair to Rahul, it also raised plenty of aspersions on the credentials of Raina.
What makes the ambiguity surrounding the Rahul-Raina conundrum even more befuddling is if you listen to what Dhoni had to say about Raina on the eve of the Boxing Day Test.
“We need a player like him (Raina), reason being apart from being a good batsman he is also a good bowler, so if there is some turn he can bowl a bit. He is someone who can bowl quite consistently. He can give me those 10-15 overs if it is really needed,” the now former Test captain had said.
“So we are trying to get batsmen who can bowl so that we can give a bit of rest needed for the fast bowlers,” he had added.
At the Gabba, once Dhoni had taken over from Kohli, it was Rohit he had gone to for handling the fifth bowler’s role. And here he was raving about Raina’s ability to provide much-needed rest for his four-prong bowling attack. But once the playing XI was announced less than 24 hours later on Boxing Day, it was Rahul and not Raina whose name found its way in there.
Incidentally, Raina had been busy in the nets on all days leading up to the MCG Test. He was seen batting constantly in the first-half of the nets session as well as getting a decent run with the ball. But all he did at the MCG, was carry drinks out for his teammates, apart from the odd stint as substitute.
“He was batting really well in the nets so we thought he can do well at number 5 or 6. We shouldn’t really judge him on just one performance,” is how Dhoni would justify Rahul’s selection after India had saved the Test despite losing the series in Melbourne. The second part of that statement should mean that the team management have also left themselves with a bigger riddle come the SCG Test which starts on Tuesday. Do they just forgive and forget Rahul’s forgettable debut by putting it down to anxiety and give him a second chance? Or do they go back to Rohit? And then there is Raina. And if it does lead to a return to Tests for the combative left-hander, who hasn’t played in whites since 2012, this could well be his final chance to make it in this format.
One thing’s for sure. The case of the revolving No.6 will be the first of many tough calls that Kohli will end up taking in his imminent Test captaincy career.