There is a popular story about penalty corner takers in India’s hockey circles, often narrated to underscore the notion of sporting anxiety. Amid all the misdirection, there’s sometimes a tell. The designated flicker is often the most edgy, twiddling his thumb or rubbing his palms while all those asked to sell a dummy are at complete ease in the moments before the corner is taken.
For 10 of India’s players, Monday was about as serene as a training session for a team leading 2-0 in the series is expected to be: a routine system check to see if all moving parts of the hi-spec machine are whirring in order. And then there were two others: Shubman Gill and KL Rahul.
India were scheduled to begin their training session at a half past one in the afternoon. But no sooner had the bus reached the Holkar Stadium at a little past one, than Gill was out in the nets with a pair of the team’s throwdown specialists leading one to wonder if he padded and kitted up during the bus ride. And when Nuwan Seneviratne had begun replicating the Mitchell Starc challenge at Gill, the rest of the Indian team had barely begun limbering up at the far side of the ground, by the pavilion.
Gill batted for more than half-an-hour against the quick throwdowns before the rest of the batting order trickled in to the nets. Cheteshwar Pujara took strike before Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma batted alongside each other in the spin and pace-bowling nets respectively. When the two senior most batters eventually decided to call it time on their sessions, Gill re-emerged from the pavilion, padded up and walked in to a net where Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja operated in tandem. Taking guard against the fast bowlers right next to him this time was KL Rahul.
It was hard to miss the drama in the moment, especially with Rohit joining Rahul Dravid at a vantage point between the two nets. For more than half an hour under the harsh Indore sun, Gill and Rahul seemed to be auditioning for that one open slot in India’s XI. Gill unfurled a pair of forceful sweep shots while Rahul overcame an edgy start against the fast bowlers before gradually growing into his own net innings later on. When this session was completed after the customary pace-swin swap, Gill walked across to the other side of the field for another round of throwdowns. And once more, Rahul followed him, but this time to the same net and the pair now swapped strike after facing six deliveries each.
It felt like a race and in many ways, it is one. The older man racing against time, fighting anti-incumbency sentiments and hoping to offset some of those unfulfilled potential. The other, itching for a chance to make the most of a golden run of form across formats. Both, generational talents, racing each other for one slot.
That this was all playing out at the Holkar Stadium added a touch of poignancy. Four years ago, in the last Test match played here, Mayank Agarwal scored a double hundred within six weeks of scoring his first in Visakhapatnam. It seemed then that Mayank had one of the opening slots sewn up in his name for the forseeable future. Weird as it may sound, Rohit was the lesser experienced of the two openers. Rahul was out of sight and out of mind, his rapid rise as a white-ball batter seemingly bringing a detriment to his red-ball game.
Then began the roulette with openers, reaching another inflexion point at the Border-Gavaskar Trophy of 2020-21 in Australia, which India began with Mayank and Prithvi Shaw as openers and ended with Rohit and Gill. When this seemed like a combo to last the distance, the elements began to realign for Rahul in England. Gill injured his shin, Mayank was left concussed and Rahul answered the 11th hour SOS call to return as an opener. And he made the most of this fortuitous turn of events, scoring match-winning centuries at Lord’s and Centurion. By the start of 2022, with Rohit and Kohli out with injuries, Rahul found himself captaining the Test side and being named the designated deputy to Rohit.
In keeping with the roller-coaster theme of his Test career, the slide came just as suddenly. Eight innings in 2022 brought Rahul just 137 runs at an average of 17.12. At the same time, Gill crackled back into contention after a brief lull with his maiden Test hundred in Chattogram and followed that with three figure scores in ODIs and T20Is, joining Rahul as one of five all-format centurions for India.
And so at the start of this series, India were faced with their first decision between the pair. They rewarded their vice-captain for his overseas performances while Gill wasn’t considered for a middle-order role even with Shreyas Iyer out injured. Two Tests later, with an average of 12.66 and a top score of 20, Rahul has been quietly relieved of his vice-captaincy status, a not quite subtle messaging that his position in the XI was no longer tenable by his designation.
And so as India’s think tank watched Rahul and Gill, restlessly move from one net to the other, their choices simply narrowed down to picking between one batter, who is seen as the future, who could use two home Tests to build his career from and the other who isn’t the past, at least not yet, but one who they’ve backed to put his myriad batting talents on show.
With one more day to go for the Test, India are still weighing up their options.