In January this year, when India defeated New Zealand in the first Twenty20 International (T20I) at Eden Park in Auckland, K. L. Rahul was asked a question: whether the additional responsibility of keeping wickets was affecting his batting?
Rahul took a pause, but replied firmly: “I’m, quite honestly, loving it.”
That answer summed up Rahul’s situation perfectly. Even though it was a new assignment for him at the international level, the dual role wasn’t something new for Rahul, who’d been a stumper-batsman since his age-group cricket days in Karnataka.
“I’ve kept (wickets) for my IPL (Indian Premier League) franchise for the last three-four years, and I’ve kept for my first-class team as and when there is an opening. I’ve still stayed in touch with wicketkeeping,” Rahul said, making it clear that the new role is actually helping him get a better idea about how the “pitch is playing.”
In this year’s IPL, Rahul not only captained Kings XI Punjab, but also played the role of a stumper-batsman; he ended up taking 10 catches from behind the wickets. While his efforts earned praise from former players, experts say the added responsibility has made Rahul a “multifaceted” cricketer.
Rahul looked at ease behind the stumps in the One-Day International (ODI) series against Australia, tackling the trickiest of deliveries. While Wriddhiman Saha continues to be India’s first choice in the longest version of the game, Rahul is being preferred in the limited-overs game even with youngsters Rishabh Pant, Sanju Samson and Ishan Kishan in the fray.
With back-to-back T20 World Cups lined up, 2021 and ’22 will be challenging years, and the question is: Has India found a long-term solution in Rahul? Or is just that the selectors are trying to find the “right balance” before coming up with a core unit?
Former India wicketkeeper M. S. K. Prasad, who until recently was chairman of the national selection committee, admits that with his consistency, Rahul has gone ahead of the other three contenders for now.
“Rahul was a wicketkeeper in the under-19 days. Subsequently, he had left wicketkeeping. But over the last few years, he has been behind the stumps (in the IPL and for Karnataka). He really worked hard on it and he looks very natural,” Prasad told Sportstar . “It is not that the role is thrust upon him. He is enjoying it. And when a player of KL’s stature is behind the stumps, it is good for the bowlers as he can guide the likes of Kuldeep Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal. In T20s and ODIs, he is a big asset.”
“It is more exciting now because a senior pro like KL has gone into the first position and there are three young contenders for the second slot. That makes things competitive,” Prasad added, referring to the trio of Pant, Samson and Kishan.
Deep Dasgupta, a former India international, believes there’s no alternative to Rahul at this point of time. “As of now, no one is breathing down his neck as far as white-ball cricket is concerned,” he said. “Rahul has the ’keeping experience. And the way he has been ’keeping in the series (against New Zealand and Australia), it shows that even he wants to continue in this dual role for long.”
With some major tournaments lined up, Dasgupta believes the selectors won’t be keen on tweaking the stumper’s slot. “KL is too good a batsman, so he will always be there with the team. As far as ’keeping is concerned, the selectors will only think of an alternative in case KL himself is uncomfortable with his role. Otherwise, there should not be any changes,” he added.
Former India captain Rahul Dravid played the role of wicketkeeper-batsman for a while between 2002 and ’04, and drawing reference to that, former India stumper Ajay Ratra believes the selectors should not think beyond Rahul ahead of the 2021 T20 World Cup, given his consistency.
“Rahul is doing a great job, both as a batsman and as a ’keeper. In the given scenario, he is the best possible choice for the Indian team management. He is not a makeshift keeper because he has prior experience of being a stumper in age-group cricket and in the IPL. That definitely gives him the edge,” Ratra said.
“If you look at the series against Australia, Rahul took a good catch of Marcus Stoinis. It was a thick edge, and at times it goes unnoticed, but Rahul did a good job. Also, the way the Indian team is struggling with a sixth bowling option, Rahul actually gives them a cushion to play an extra all-rounder. That is definitely a big advantage,” said Ratra, who worked closely with Rahul during his stint at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru.
One of India’s most seasoned wicketkeepers, however, said the arrangement should be a pro tempore one.
“KL is more of a batsman who keeps wickets. It’s just a stop-gap arrangement that has yielded results. In the (Indian) subcontinent, it’s not going to be easy for him because the wickets turn. So, in those circumstances, you need a specialised ’keeper,” said Nayan Mongia, who featured in 140 ODIs and 44 Tests for India between 1994 and 2001.
“If the team management and the selectors are considering him as a long-term investment, then they have to persist with him and need to be clear about the kind of team balance they want in the side. A lot would depend on that.”
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