If an acronym has to be attributed to Ajinkya Rahane’s return to India’s Test squad, it should be a four-letter descriptor, not three. At least according to those in the know of selection matters. It can be “There Is No Alternative (TINA)”, not really the “Indian Premier League (IPL)”.
Even before they got into a final huddle on Monday night, with captain Rohit Sharma joining in, to finalise the squad for the World Test Championship (WTC) final versus Australia, the four selectors were involved in multiple rounds of discussion with the team management.
The BCCI - in sync with the recent trend - neither elaborated on Rahane’s selection in the media statement nor did it let interim chief selector Shiv Sundar Das field queries from the journalists, on behalf of crores of Indian cricket fans.
Based on conversations - preferring anonymity - with various individuals involved in decision-making, it can be interpreted that more than paying heed to the social media outcry following Rahane’s resounding returns in the Indian Premier League, the selectors were mulling over his name for the last month. After all, the selection committee was hard-pressed for options for a vacant slot in the middle-order.
They had decided to move on from Suryakumar Yadav, at least for the WTC final. Rishabh Pant’s return to competitive cricket can only happen in 2024. Shreyas Iyer and Rajat Patidar were unavailable for selection due to fitness concerns.
As a result, the selectors - despite falling prey to the team management’s wish list repeatedly - did not fall prey to the trending topics on social media. But they were actually caught with the TINA syndrome.
What about Sarfaraz Khan then? After scoring tons of runs in white flannels in domestic cricket - and at times for India A - why not him then? Well, that’s a valid question. But with Sarfaraz’s inability to play short balls against quality pacers, neither the selectors nor the team management were convinced about calling him up for a high-pressure game like the World Test Championship final.
And has Indian cricket conveniently forgotten Hanuma Vihari, one of the silent architects of the series win in Australia? Having done justice to the majority of his outings - especially away from home - Vihari was not even considered despite having recovered from a fractured wrist.
Despite his overall numbers in the Ranji Trophy, Rahane has had a topsy-turvy season. His overall record - 634 runs at 57.63 - is impressive. But the fact that both his hundreds - against Hyderabad and Assam - came against mediocre teams cannot be overlooked.
Still, just to reiterate, IPL form has little bearing over WTC final squad selection. Then what is it that’s worked for Rahane?
The obvious reason is his wealth of experience, the 82 Test caps over the last decade and his leadership qualities in the dressing room. Equally important is the fact that head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma are extremely fond of Rahane.
But it’s the same duo that, in consultation with the previous chief selector Chetan Sharma, had set the transition ball rolling, at least in Test cricket. They dropped Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane after the duo, along with Virat Kohli, had enjoyed a long rope despite unacceptable returns with the willow.
Despite the TINA narrative, the onus is on the selection panel, team management and coaching staff at the National Cricket Academy to create alternatives. After all, bench strength has been among the most overused terms in Indian cricket of late.
But with multiple players breaking down simultaneously and the domestic First-Class structure and India A tours severely affected during COVID-19, the depth in Indian cricket, which was revered all over the world during the Border-Gavaskar Trophy triumph in Australia in 2020-21, has been dented.
Does this mean Rahane is assured of a place at No. 5 at the Oval, come June 7? Not really. He will be competing against KL Rahul, who has been selected in multiple capacities. While Rahul has toured England since 2018, Rahane’s record at the Oval certainly goes against him.
Rahane has tallied 55 runs in six innings at the Oval, including three ducks, spanning over three tours starting 2014. But if he continues to be Ajinkya Rahane, as he prophetically spelt out during the IPL, then he can justify his recall and help India end its decade-long drought of an ICC title.
Irrespective of the combination and the result, the debate over his selection will go on. But do not link it only to his sensational form in the IPL, please!
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