It’s an apt indication of the standing, stature and significance of the teams concerned that India haven’t travelled to Zimbabwe for more than six years now. The snappy three-match One-Day International series starting in Harare on Thursday (August 18) marks India’s first tour to the African nation since June 2016.
It was in the opening game of that ODI series that KL Rahul became the first Indian to score a hundred on his 50-over international debut. That’s a surprising stat, given that India had played ODIs for nearly 40 years at that stage and a plethora of white-ball giants had already graced the world stage. By then, Rahul had already scored a maiden Test hundred in only his second match, in Sydney in January 2015. An unbeaten 110 against West Indies in Lauderhill in August 2016 in a Twenty20 International made him the quickest to international hundreds in all formats, just 20 months into his India career.
Rohit Sharma’s cross-format deputy returns to Zimbabwe with not these impressive records in mind but a more pressing task at hand. The stylish Karnataka batsman’s last India appearance was in February. While he did lead newcomers Lucknow Super Giants in Season 15 of the Indian Premier League, a combination of injuries and illness have prevented him from representing the country for the last six months.
Named in the 15-man squad for the Asia Cup beginning in the UAE in less than 10 days, the ODIs against Zimbabwe should, all other things being equal, allow Rahul to ease back into the international fold. From all indications, this is a reasonably relaxed sojourn and that’s not said with any disrespect to Zimbabwe, who are coming off impressive ODI and T20I home series wins against combative Bangladesh. It’s just that the series is relatively low-profile, with much of the attention already trained on the Asia Cup and with only Deepak Hooda and Rahul from this squad in the mix for the continental bash.
When the national selectors picked the side for Zimbabwe on July 30, Rahul was a conspicuous absentee. Having undergone surgery to fix a sports hernia problem, he had been primed to make his India return in the five-match T20I series against West Indies until he was laid low by Covid. Unwilling to tempt fate, perhaps, the five wise men refrained from picking Rahul for Zimbabwe, instead conferring the captaincy on the experienced Shikhar Dhawan, who had led a team bereft of regulars to ODI series triumphs in Sri Lanka last year and the Caribbean last month.
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Then, out of the blue and without warning, the Board of Control for Cricket in India sent out a press release on August 11 stating that Rahul had been cleared by its medical team to play against Zimbabwe, and that he would supersede Dhawan as captain, the Delhi left-hander demoted as his deputy. On the face of it, that appears unfair on various counts, both to Dhawan and Rahul himself, but the reasoning behind Rahul’s elevation above Dhawan isn’t without merit.
There is a school of thought which believes Dhawan should have continued to remain captain, never mind Rahul’s late inclusion. After all, he is a seasoned cricketer who first played for India in 2010, is well respected and has led the country with distinction in the past previously. To downgrade him to Rahul’s deputy at this late stage was both insensitive and disrespectful because when the squad to Zimbabwe was announced, there was no caveat which said Rahul could return to the team, and as captain, subject to medical clearance.
Furthermore, that school contends, Rahul himself would have been better off playing as just a batsman so that he could concentrate on his own skills instead of having to marshall the troops and look out for ten others, given the stakes that are involved personally and for the full Indian side that will play the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup in Australia later in the year. After all, no matter the cracking form he showed for the country and for his franchise, his last competitive fixture was in late May and his best interests would have been served had he been left to his own devices, allowing the solid Dhawan to shoulder the leadership responsibilities. Hard to argue with that logic.
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The catch here is that there is a clearly defined pecking order within the Indian set-up, and Rahul is very high on that totem pole. Above him on that list is only Rohit, the all-format skipper since March. Rahul has officially been identified and confirmed as Rohit’s deputy and therefore, the decision-makers assert, when he is playing and Rohit is not, it is a given that Rahul will lead the side. Considering how much emphasis the Indian mind-space places on hierarchy, that seems a reasonable explanation; one only hopes that there have been clear lines of communication with Dhawan who, it must be said, has taken this development in his stride, with no little grace and equanimity.
It’s worth remembering that on the tour of Australia towards the end of 2020, Virat Kohli led in the ill-fated Adelaide Test even though it was public knowledge that he would miss the three remaining Tests as he availed paternity leave. Ajinkya Rahane would be the captain in Kohli’s absence, so it would have been logical for him to lead in the first Test too, several argued, for the sake of continuity and consistency. That would only have been possible if Kohli himself had made that suggestion to the selectors, whose hands were otherwise tied because how would they be able to justify the designated captain playing under his deputy, no matter how extraordinary the circumstances?
Now that the deed is done and Rahul has been installed captain for the three games in Zimbabwe, all the stakeholders of Indian cricket will be desperately hoping that he quickly sheds whatever rust there might be and hits the ground running. India’s T20 fortunes have been on an upswing in Rahul’s absence but in Rohit and head coach Rahul Dravid’s plans, Rahul is a central and influential cog, so it is imperative that he takes form, confidence and feel-good into the ‘bigger’ battles ahead.