Gautam Gambhir made perhaps the shortest comeback to Test cricket on Tuesday (March 19), one that ended even before it began, so to speak.
Gambhir will look back on Tuesday with mixed emotions – delight that he was recalled to the Indian Test squad, just three matches after being shown the door, and despair that the comeback had to be aborted because he was diagnosed with jaundice the same day.
In the clearest indication yet that the door is far from shut on Gambhir's Test career, the current national selection committee brought him back for what ought to have been a dream return at the ground where he cut his teeth as a cricketer. That should delight the spunky left-hand opener. He has been told in no uncertain terms that he is definitely in the mix for the tour of South Africa later this year, and that should keep his fire burning over the next several months, never mind the temporary setback in the form of illness.
Gambhir perhaps deserved to go out when he did, not so much because his Test form against England was dismal but because in eight subsequent One-Day Internationals against Pakistan and England, he hardly made a run in anger. With Gambhir not being in the same league as Virender Sehwag when it comes to being an impact player, it was always on the cards that it was Sehwag who would get a longer rope. But having worked his way back into the runs, both in first-class and limited-overs matches, in domestic cricket, Gambhir has convinced the selectors and the team management, it would appear, that he continues to remain desperate for international action.
So far so good. But then, what did Sandeep Patil and his fellow selectors do when they realised that Gambhir wasn't unavailable? They simply chose not to bring in another specialist opener, leaving the 14-man squad with just one regular opening batsman in Murali Vijay.
The selectors turned to Gambhir in the first place because Shikhar Dhawan, the debutant hero in Mohali, was ruled out of the final Test against Australia beginning in New Delhi on Friday with a fractured finger. Why, when they picked Gambhir, they also added Suresh Raina to the squad is a bit of a mystery, especially considering that at that point, they already had a reserve middle-order batsman in Ajinkya Rahane, who has warmed the bench for three series now without getting a look-in. Why they opted not to go in for a replacement for Gambhir is an even bigger mystery, leading to the question: who will open with Vijay?
Soon after Patil chaired his first selection committee meeting, to pick the squad for the early part of the Test series against England in November, he made it clear that Rahane had been picked only as a middle-order batsman. Nothing has happened between then and now to suggest that Rahane has become a specialist opener all over again – he began his first-class career as an opener, and made a century on debut for Mumbai against Karachi Urban in the Mohammad Nissar Trophy in Karachi in September 2007.
If the idea is to 'see' Rahane as a middle-order option in Test cricket ahead of the tour of South Africa – as of now, this is India's last Test before the series in South Africa later in the year – then that is not without merit. But how does it affect the balance of the team and what does it do to the existing order, which itself, it must be pointed out, is in its nascent stages?
If Rahane is not the designated second opener now, then will it be Cheteshwar Pujara's lot to be saddled with the opening position? Two of Pujara's 20 Test innings have been as opener, and both under extenuating circumstances – first against England in the second innings in Ahmedabad when Gambhir left for Delhi following the demise of his grandmother, then in Mohali earlier this week when Dhawan sustained the fracture.
All four of Pujara's hundreds have come at No. 3 and he is clearly the first choice at that position. Is it fair on him, only 12 Tests young, to be taken out of his comfort zone, however pressing the need might be to accommodate Rahane in the XI? Are we gently nudging Pujara the Rahul Dravid way?
Or, however far-fetched it might appear, is Raina all of a sudden in the running as an opener? He wasn't when he was first picked alongside Gambhir, but is he now? It's worth remembering that during the domestic first-class season gone by, Raina had expressed a desire to be considered as an opener, and even made an inconsequential second-innings ton for Uttar Pradesh against Vidarbha, his only flirtation with that position this season.
Perhaps the selectors didn't want to return to Sehwag one Test after he was dropped, and perhaps they didn't want to go back to Wasim Jaffer, nearly five years after he last played for the country. But they still had an option in Abhinav Mukund, the left-hand opener from Tamil Nadu who played in the West Indies and England in 2011, if they were so inclined to include another specialist opener in the squad. Australia have four openers in a squad of 16, India have one in a squad of 14. Some imbalance there, surely?