The first act of the collective of men with 13 Tests and 31 One-Day Internationals under their belt has been to hand a comeback to a player who is 34 years and 350 days old, and has played 56 Tests and 147 ODIs. Translating from numerals to English: the national selection committee has picked Gautam Gambhir as replacement for KL Rahul, who is out of the rest of the Test series against New Zealand with a hamstring injury.
The decision itself is hardly a sensational one. In his last five innings in first-class cricket, Gambhir has scores of 77, 90, 59, 94 and 60. The selectors might have been tempted to slot Shikhar Dhawan back in at the top and include an extra middle-order batsman in the squad. This, however, would have left the team exposed to plenty of shuffling if either Dhawan or M Vijay was injured at the 11th hour, perhaps forcing Cheteshwar Pujara, who has just rediscovered his middle-order mojo, to open the innings.
Once the team management and the selectors were clear that they wanted a third specialist opener in the squad, Gambhir was the clear frontrunner. Mayank Agarwal has been in fine form, scoring heavily in the Duleep Trophy, but he is just about establishing his credentials as a long-form player.
Gambhir is a proven commodity and formed one half of one of India’s most successful opening partnerships, with statemate Virender Sehwag. It is safe to assume that the team management, and specifically Virat Kohli, the captain, was consulted before the selectors took the call. In the case of a younger player, it would not matter as much, but with an experienced campaigner such as Gambhir, a recall to the squad should be as good as a recall to the playing XI. But where does this leave Dhawan, who is already in the squad as an opener, but did not make the cut when Rahul and Vijay were both fit?
It is these matters of policy that the team, in consultation with the selectors, has to address. This selection committee is a new one, so it cannot be expected to explain the decisions of its predecessors, but it is worth examining how the opening slot became such a conundrum in the first place. When India travelled to the West Indies, Vijay and Dhawan were the incumbents. Dhawan made 84 in the first Test, followed by 27, 1 and 26, before being dropped for the final Test. In the meantime, Vijay, who missed the second Test after being hit on the thumb, was overlooked for the third Test once he had regained fitness.
Rahul’s crisp 158 in the first opportunity he got made him, in the eyes of the team, undroppable, even in comparison to Vijay, who had been one of India’s best batsmen in all conditions for more than two years. The natural question that follows, then, is what the team will do if Gambhir does a Rahul, coming in as a replacement, and scores heavily in the two Tests.
While there can be no hard and fast rule when it comes to these situations, it would greatly help ease the ambiguity for the players involved if they knew what principles guided the team when it came to such grey areas. This is especially crucial in the case of established, senior players who have to be left out because of injury or form. What is the roadmap for such players to get back into the mix?
Indeed, Gambhir will be asking a few questions of his own at the moment. At nearly 35, he is not young enough to expect to have a long run in the team, in the full knowledge that younger men who have already proven themselves are waiting in the wings. What does Gambhir have to look forward to, beyond adding a couple of Tests to his not inconsiderable body of work?
“Excitement of a debutant, certainty of experienced, nervousness of a novice … am feeling it all. Eden here I come loaded with ambitions,” Gambhir tweeted after his return to the India dressing-room was announced. What remains to be seen is whether Gambhir will be given the chance to fulfill these ambitions, and what the future will hold should he do so in the next couple of weeks.