KL Rahul’s Test career poised for another twist in South Africa series | Cricket

The undulating saga that has been KL Rahul’s Test career for the last three years is poised for another twist. Rahul, who has worn as many hats as his illustrious namesake from Bengaluru, is set to go one better than head coach Rahul Dravid when he dons the wicketkeeper’s garb in the first Test against South Africa in Centurion.

Indian players Shubman Gill, KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer and Yashasvi Jaiswal during a practice session ahead of the first Test cricket match between India and South Africa(PTI)

In some ways, this might appear a natural progression, given how well he had kept wickets at the 50-over World Cup and in the year preceding it. In other ways, it is a happy and convenient compromise with Rishabh Pant still out of commission. In all ways, though, it is a welcome development from the think-tank’s perspective, given the lack of experience of South African conditions in Test cricket of the Indian batting group.

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Of the top six, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Shubman Gill and Shreyas Iyer have yet to play a Test in South Africa. The last of skipper Rohit Sharma’s four Tests came in 2018, when he occupied a middle-order slot. That leaves Virat Kohli and Rahul as the only batters to have played at least five Tests in South Africa, and the only ones in this squad to have scored hundreds in South Africa as well.

Rahul’s lone century came two years back, interestingly enough at SuperSport Park where the first of two Tests will be played from Tuesday. That was on the back of an unexpected return to Test cricket five months previously in England, when a concussion injury to great mate Mayank Agarwal on the day before the first Test brought him back into red-ball action after a two-year hiatus.

Making the most of that lifeline, Rahul struck up an excellent alliance with Rohit; the two openers put on 784 runs in conditions that many felt they would struggle to master, but in typical Rahul fashion, within two months of his 123 that set up India’s first win in Centurion in late 2021, he was out of the Test side.

A brief comeback which lasted four games ended this February, and as Gill stepped down to No. 3 to fill the breach created by Cheteshwar Pujara’s exit and Jaiswal linked up successfully with Rohit in the two Tests in the Caribbean this year, Rahul found himself increasingly isolated from the Test set-up.

His excellent work behind the sticks at the World Cup, primarily, impressed Rohit and Dravid enough to consider him in a similar capacity in the five-day game, where the demands are infinitely more intricate. But with Rahul willing to play ball, Rohit and Dravid didn’t need to do much convincing. Given the lack of experience in South Africa of the top order and Rahul’s own not-inconsiderable experience – he has 47 Test appearances – this could yet turn out to be the perfect fit.

In the last two days leading up to the first Test, the head coach and the captain have waxed eloquent about Rahul’s commitment to his new avatar. Of course, the cynics might aver that Rahul had no choice but to grasp the lifeline thrown to him, if only to extend his Test career, and that this is unfair on Ishan Kishan, who has since returned to India for personal reasons, but that is only to be expected in a country where everyone and his cousin has an opinion on all things cricket.

In the immediate future – ‘He wants to keep now, but I am not sure for how long,’ a smiling Rohit said on Monday – Rahul will bolster the Indian middle order, hope to snaffle the edges found by the Jasprit Bumrah-led pace attack and keep competently to spin which might not be such a huge factor over the next two weeks. But whether this arrangement will extend to the home series against England, starting in a month’s time, remains to be seen. Spin will clearly be India’s preferred choice of weapon in those five games and the cry might be for a ‘specialist’ stumper, but who is to say that Rahul isn’t being considered so already by the brains’ trust.

Rahul began his Test career in December 2014 in Australia in the middle order before moving up to open the batting; apart from the odd innings at No. 3, he has exclusively been an opener. On his return to the middle order, he will face myriad challenges in a country where batting gets increasingly difficult when the ball gets older. Throw in the demands of getting up and down behind the stumps for 90 overs a day, and the magnitude of the task ahead of the 31-year-old is all too obvious. This might be a compromise, sure, but by no means is it a walk in the park.

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