K L Rahul became the new entrant to the list of injured players in the Indian camp when he limped off the field during the Indian Premier League (IPL) game between Lucknow Super Giants and Royal Challengers Bangalore. The nature and extent of the injury was not revealed except for a cryptic communication that he was ruled out of the remainder of the IPL and the final of the World Test Championship (WTC) as well. Rahul, later, made an Instagram post, that he underwent a successful surgery and was on the road to recovery.
There usually occurs some amount of speculations and discussions when a place opens up in the side before it embarks on a tour outside India. Though the duration of the upcoming tour of England is short as only one Test will be played, the significance of the occasion - the final of the WTC - demanded that there be some lengthy deliberations about who should take Rahul’s place in the squad. Surprisingly there was little debate on the topic and few eyebrows were raised when selectors named Ishan Kishan as the replacement.
Print and visual media reported this decision in a matter of fact manner without arguing the merits and demerits behind it. Even observers and former cricketers following the game chose to maintain a silence over the replacement of a right-handed middle order batsman by a left-handed wicketkeeper-batter. No one chose to examine the performance of Kishan in longer duration version of the game in domestic cricket, which alone should be the criterion for filling up a space that opens in the national Test squad.
Kishan, as followers of the game know very well, is an attacking batsmen who plays at the top of the order. He hails from Jharkhand and made his debut in first-class cricket in 2014, at the tender age of 16 years. He soon caught the attention of the junior selectors who named him as the skipper of national side for the International Cricket Council (ICC) Under-19 World Cup in 2016. He was spotted by the talent scouts of IPL franchises and hired by Gujarat Lions in the auctions that preceded the 2017 edition of the championship. His brand of attacking batsmanship helped him to get into the national reckoning and he took the cricketing world by storm, winning the man-of-the-match award on his first appearance in international cricket. In a T20 International against England at Ahmedabad in March, 2021, he struck 56 off 32 balls to help India secure a seven-wicket victory, which helped him win this honour on his debut.
This blistering start helped Kishan to get into the One-Day International (ODI) side soon. He played his first ODI in July, 2021, against Sri Lanka at Colombo, where he struck struck a half-century (59 off 42 balls). Since then he has played 13 more ODIs and scored a total of 510 runs, which includes a career defining knock of 210 against Bangladesh at Chattogram in December, 2022. A closer scrutiny shows that, other than this double ton and the half-century on debut, he has made only 241 runs in 12 appearances in ODIs, till date. The same is the case in T20 matches as well, where he has made only 653 runs in 27 matches. This reveals a lack of consistency in making runs at the highest level in these forms of the game, which has prevented him from cementing his place in the national squad. We should also take note of the fact that as an opening batsman, he has the advantage of taking on the bowlers when field restrictions and Powerplay are in place, which provide access to easy runs.
If Kishan is still a work in progress in white-ball cricket at the international level, what could have spurred the selector to pick him for the WTC final? A look at his performances in domestic first-class cricket tells us that he has scored 2,985 runs in 48 games, at an average of 38.76, in the nine seasons since his debut. Thus, his performance in this format has been, to put it mildly, in the range of mediocre. He has not performed any heroic deeds with the bat in recent times to justify his elevation to the side . Hence the question as to what provoked the selectors to invest in Kishan remains unanswered.
One possibility is that since Rahul could double up as a wicketkeeper in times of necessity, Kishan was drafted in to fill in this role. If that were so, selectors could have opted for Wridhiman Saha, who remains the best gloveman in the country. Further, Saha is a dependable lower order batsman, who rarely fails to chip in when the need arises. He is in good form with the bat as well, as can be seen from some of his performances in the IPL. Hence, it is evident that his wicketkeeping credentials were not what won Kishan this elevation to the side.
What about the talent available in domestic circuit in this regard? A look at the top 10 performers with the bat in Ranji Trophy during the 2022-23 season reveals that seven them have crossed the age of 30 years. And among them this lot, seven are batsmen who either open the innings or bat at the top of the order. There are no players who are below 30 and bat in the middle order among the top 10 run-getters in domestic cricket. The three middle order batsmen who figure in this list - Arpita Vasavada, Anustup Majumdar and Sachin Baby - are well into their mid to late 30s and cannot to be expected to play for more than three-four years.
This shows that the cupboard is not brimming with young talent when it comes to middle order batsmen in Indian cricket at present. It is on account of this fact that selectors plumped for Ajinkya Rahane, despite his advancing years, when Shreyas Iyer was injured. And this is the real reason behind Kishan finding a place in the squad in place of Rahul. This shows a dangerous situation where domestic cricket does not have many players to offer for crucial positions in the batting line-up in the national cricket team in the longer version of the game.
At this juncture one should pause and take a look at Sarfaraz Khan, the only young middle order batsman, who has been making waves in domestic cricket. He hails from Mumbai and has been playing first-class cricket since 2014. At 25 years, he is in the same age group as Kishan. But unlike Kishan, he has been a consistent performer in first-class circuit as his record of 3,505 runs from 37 games at an average of 79.55 shows. His performances in the 2022-23 domestic season - 566 runs from six matches at an average of 92.66 - shows that he is in good form as well. His only blemish is that he is not a prolific scorer in the IPL and thus fails to get the attention of not only the media but also the selectors. Both Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav have set up their careers in Test cricket based on their performances in the IPL, while a genuine performer like Sarfaraz finds himself out in the cold despite showing his superiority in red-ball cricket.
Rewarding Sarfaraz with a place in the national side for the WTC final would have helped to not only motivate the player but also sent across the message that good performances in domestic cricket will be rewarded. Unfortunately this has not been done. The selection of Kishan conveys firmly that selectors cannot see beyond the IPL and the slam-bang cricket played there. This does not portent well for the first-class cricket circuit and will result in weakening it further, with the cricketers taking part in it seeing little future for themselves.
It merits reiteration that the IPL is a good championship which has helped unearth plenty of young talents besides filling the coffers of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and improving the financial status of cricketers. But the singular focus on the IPL by the administrators and selectors to the exclusion of everything else will cause grave damage to the structure of the game in the country. This will also weaken the national side in Tests and ODI format in the long run. This is a risk that cricket officialdom should foresee and prevent by taking appropriate remedial actions.
To sum up, the selection of Kishan defies cricketing logic to the same extent that non-consideration of Sarfaraz for the spot in the national squad does. Neither bodes well for the future of the game in the country.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)