Fried cashews or devilled ones? Pol sambol or seeni sambol? Hill country or the seaside? Sri Lanka can be a land of delicious dilemmas. The India team, travelling here, have their own dilemma now. Both their back-up openers who got a chance in the Galle Test scored runs and impressed; who makes way for KL Rahul now?
A week before the Test, neither Shikhar Dhawan nor Abhinav Mukund would have imagined themselves opening the innings in Galle. Not together at any rate. Then M Vijay discovered his wrist hadn't healed enough after his surgery, and Rahul fell ill in Sri Lanka. In came Dhawan with 190 and Abhinav with 81 in the second innings. If Dhawan scored the runs when they mattered more, Abhinav proved his worth with a sensational run-out and a sharp catch at silly point. If Abhinav's runs came under little pressure, Dhawan benefited from being dropped when he played a loose shot early in his innings.
Unfair as it may sound to the two who have put in performances when the rare opportunity arrived, the trend in this Indian team has been for injured players to come back and take their places immediately. Wriddhiman Saha reclaimed his spot as soon as he was fit even though Parthiv Patel did a stellar job as replacement in the England Tests. Jayant Yadav made an impressive debut against England, but had to make way once Amit Mishra was fit. Karun Nair, after scoring a triple hundred, sat out immediately.
"Yes, it's a very tricky situation," Virat Kohli said after the Galle Test. "[And] we've got a fourth guy who's a regular opener for India (Vijay) who's not fit. We've got all four openers firing now. Shikhar was supposed to go to Melbourne to join his family, now he's got a 190 in Galle. So anything can happen in life.
"Let's see how we decide on these things in the next three days. It's going to be tough but, any day, you'd like to be in this situation rather than having guys that are not scoring. I'm happy for both these guys who've done well. KL (Rahul) is obviously a champion player as well, so we'll have to eventually take a call on who plays in the next Test. I'm sure the third guy will understand whatever the call is taken by the team."
Two days before the Test, Rahul took part in every aspect of the training, but coach Ravi Shastri suggested he was not yet certainly available for selection. "Rahul is good," Shastri said. "We are watching him closely. He went through some tough times, he was in the hospital for two-three days, obviously it has taken a lot out of him. So we have to be very careful how we treat him, we are watching him very closely, and he is getting better by the day."
If he is 100% fit and healthy, Rahul should be the first-choice opener for Colombo. By the extension of this, a case could be made for Abhinav to keep his place because he was selected in the squad before Dhawan, which at that point represented a greater trust in him than in Dhawan. However, Dhawan has made it more complicated with a 190 that contained, perhaps, just two mistakes. Then again he has been tried in difficult conditions before, and there is no indication results might be different this time. Abhinav, on the other hand, hasn't enjoyed a prolonged run.
It need not necessarily be between Dhawan and Abhinav, though. Here is a left-field suggestion: India know their two first-choice openers when they go to South Africa are Vijay and Rahul; why not use these relatively easier Tests to identify the third? Don't make the decision in a hurry. One Test can be too small a sample size to make the call. Let Rahul rest for one more Test, let him know he will get the spot back sooner or later; look for more indicators in the two other openers at SSC, in what will hopefully be a more challenging track.
There is a precedent for this as well. When Rahul scored a sparkling hundred in the second Test in the West Indies last year, Vijay, the man he had replaced, sat out the third Test despite being fit.