Ruturaj Gaikwad shows that he belongs to the international stage

July 28, 2021. India have just defeated Sri Lanka in the 1st T20I, and their fringe players – the likes of Devdutt Padikkal, Nitish Rana and Ruturaj Gaikwad haven’t been called upon so far. It also seems that they will have enough to outlast the Islanders. Suryakumar Yadav is scoring tons of runs. Shikhar Dhawan is leading them with aplomb and if things go pear-shaped, Hardik Pandya’s presence in the middle order should offset it.

But then, something that India wouldn’t have imagined even in their wildest dreams, happens. More than half of their squad is put into isolation because of the prevalence of COVID-19 cases. From having too many players, they are suddenly forced into a situation where their net bowlers are being called up to the eleven.

The circumstances are so dire that another injury could prompt Rahul Dravid (the stand-in head coach then) to strap on his pads. This might be a tad more dramatic than how it might have transpired. But you kind of get the point, right?

Among this debris, India have to play a game of cricket – that too against a proud sporting nation smarting from its most recent white-ball defeat. The non-availabilities mean that a few IPL regulars – for example, Gaikwad, get their chance in the international sun. But with so much uncertainty around COVID-19 regulations and prescribed quarantines, it feels that the result doesn’t matter much.

In the grander scheme of things, it might not have. To these young cricketers, though, who have finally gotten an opportunity to don the Indian blue, everything matters. When talking specifically about Gaikwad, the stakes seem a lot higher. Not just because he is making his international bow, but also because there has been plenty of chatter (both negative and positive) around his ascent.

For a bit of context, Gaikwad came through the Chennai Super Kings ranks during IPL 2020. Even before that season began, he went down with COVID-19, limiting his preparation time and leaving him rusty for whatever few games he played at the start. MS Dhoni then threw out that spark comment, igniting debate over whether CSK had the requisite quality to usher in their next era of prospective dominance.

Gaikwad silenced those doubters with three successive half-centuries at the fag end of IPL 2020. But when he began huffing and puffing at the beginning of IPL 2021, many felt that he had reverted to the mean. That he wasn’t quite the player countless people thought he was. And that he, more damningly, didn’t belong at that stage.

Too much of the IPL now. Back to the opener and his travails in international cricket. The stage is set for him to announce his arrival against Sri Lanka. He has a decent stack of runs behind him, and he knows he will get two chances to show his worth.

He begins his innings with a sumptuous lofted extra cover drive off Dhananjaya de Silva. This shot, by the way, was played against the spin – something youngsters have always been taught to guard against. But when Gaikwad plays it, it felt like it was almost meant to be played in this manner.

Despite that stroke, he looks a little edgy. There are nerves, of course. Usually, though, he is able to tide over them. This time, they get the better of him. A game later, his fortunes don’t improve and he departs for another low score. There a few queries around his shot-selection. Those, however, dwarf in comparison to questions around his suitability to international cricket.

Post that series, he let his bat do the talking. He ended IPL 2021 as the leading run-getter. His contributions were so immense that CSK romped to the title, with Gaikwad’s half-century in Qualifier 1 paving the way for a trademark Dhoni finishing flourish. He also scored a truckload of runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, indicating how he had levelled up considerably.

IPL 2022 was, by his standards, not great. However, he still finished as CSK’s leading run-getter. While that was down to those around him floundering, it was still enough to illustrate that Gaikwad had what it took to dominate IPL cricket.

But because of the embarrassment of riches in the opening department, those IPL and domestic returns haven’t translated into a consistent run of opportunities. Against the West Indies, he played a solitary T20I – that too after the series was won. And against South Africa, he might not have featured altogether had KL Rahul been fit.

Fate, though, works in mysterious ways. Five matches, considering the resources that India have, might seem a lot for any youngster finding his way. For Gaikwad, it does not feel nearly enough. Not because he has developed a knack of starting slowly wherever he goes, but also because he is a talent worth persevering with.

The 3rd T20I at Vishakhapatnam was the first time he was participating in his third successive T20I. And, he repaid that faith with a splendid knock – a knock that stood out on a pitch where almost every other batter struggled. Like all things Gaikwad, it oozed class and grace at every juncture.

Ruturaj Gaikwad scores his first T20I fifty

It began with a slightly streaky inside-edged boundary past short fine leg. But when Kagiso Rabada drifted onto the pads, the CSK opener whipped him over deep mid-wicket for a majestic maximum. He then tore into Anrich Nortje, long considered one of the fastest bowlers on the planet. Gaikwad copped a blow on the helmet for his toils but that didn’t deter his instincts. When Nortje erred, the opener pounced.

He couldn’t keep it going post the half-way stage. But by then, he had done his job. With Ishan Kishan having a tendency to start sluggishly, the onus was on Gaikwad to cast India into the ascendancy. This, by the way, isn’t a role he is accustomed to. Normally, the CSK opener likes taking his time before launching his onslaught. From that perspective too, it was encouraging that he took up a different role and played it to perfection.

This innings, however, wasn’t about the repertoire of strokes the right-handed batter displayed, or the ease with which he handled extreme pace. It wasn’t even about how he overshadowed Kishan at the other end, who lest we forget, has been in stunning form against the Proteas.

It was about showing to the rest of the world that he belongs to this stage. That he can leave an imprint whenever he walks out donning the blue and that he can dictate terms. That he is, most importantly, every bit as good as everyone has said he can be.

Post his knock, he was quick to admit that he just backed himself, irrespective of the low scores he had racked up. This was, in many ways, a philosophy straight out of the CSK coaching manual. Oh, and to just add a bit of intrigue, CSK’s most famous son airlifted his international career at this very ground all those years ago against Pakistan.

At his franchise, Gaikwad has been backed to the hilt. He has endured elongated barren patches but has never been put into a situation where he starts feeling the pinch. Till Tuesday, it seemed that every time he batted for India, he felt the pressure to perform.

Even during that phase, he might have been telling himself that he is good enough to succeed regularly on the international stage. Not many, though, would’ve bought into that narrative. In fact, there were several clamouring for his omission from the side prior to Tuesday.

An average of 20 across six T20I innings is not what should define a player of his calibre. Nor, is it something he should be content with. But now, he has some precedent to cling on to. And, of course, walk the talk of trusting himself and his abilities.

Not only can he keep chirping about backing himself every time someone asks him his batting mantra, he can do so knowing that people, especially after witnessing his knock at Vishakhapatnam, will start believing in it.

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