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Analysis

The ladders have gone, only snakes lurk in Rahul's Test path right now

The vice-captaincy has been taken away and Rahul might well be dropped for the Indore Test, but it won't be because India have lost faith in him

Sometimes it can feel like the world is against you. KL Rahul may have felt like this on Sunday - a festive Sunday for his team, who retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after going 2-0 up in the series, but perhaps one tinged with melancholy for him.
When India began their chase of 115, Rahul may have felt under a bit of pressure, having managed a top score of just 23 in his last nine Test innings. Then, facing the third ball of his innings, Rahul went on the back foot against a marginally short delivery from Nathan Lyon, the kind of fractional error in length that India's batters have been able to flick away all series. Rahul flicked and flicked sweetly, off the middle of his bat.
A tortured moment later, he was dragging himself back to the dressing room. The ball had hit Peter Handscomb, the short-leg fielder, flush on the shinpad and rebounded into the wicketkeeper's gloves.
8, 12, 10, 22, 23, 10, 2, 20, 17, 1.
In his post-match press conference, India captain Rohit Sharma said the team management remained convinced about Rahul's ability as a Test-match opener. He referenced the hundreds Rahul had scored before his lean run, at Lord's and Centurion in 2021.
"Of late there has been a lot of talk about his batting, but for us as team management, we always look at the potential of any individual, not just KL," Rohit said. "I was asked in the past about lot of players, and if the guy has potential, guys will get that extended run. It's not just about KL, but anyone.
"If you look at the couple of hundreds he got outside India, [two] of the best I've seen from KL, especially at Lord's - batting on a damp pitch, losing the toss, put in [to bat], and playing in England is never easy, and he put [in] a great performance there, and Centurion was another one. Both came in India wins, so again, that's the potential he has.
"Obviously, of late,` there has been a lot of talk, but it was clear from our side that we want him to go out and just play his game and do what he can do best, that we have seen [from] him over the years."
This may well be the team management's view. Later in the evening, though, the BCCI sent out a press release announcing the squad for the third and fourth Tests of the series. The squad was unchanged apart from one small detail. There was no vice-captain.
Rahul had been vice-captain in the first two Tests. He had captained India in their last two Tests before this series, in Bangladesh, where Rohit had been out injured.
Sunday's demotion seemed like another throw of the dice in the snakes-and-ladders story of Rahul's Test career. It wasn't so long ago that he had gone from two-year absentee to middle-order aspirant to replacement opener to first-choice opener to vice-captain to stand-in captain in the space of less than a year.
The ladders seem to have been whisked away now, and snakes seem to lie in wait at every corner.
There is intense scrutiny of Rahul's place in the side in the media, particularly of the social kind, and among his fiercest critics is a former India player from his own state - an uncommon occurrence in Indian cricket.
Rohit's words on Sunday may have been tinged with a deeply felt empathy, because he's been through nearly every step of the same journey. He arrived in 2007 as a player of endless potential, but took 64 ODIs to lift his average, once and for all, above 30. He waited until 2013 to make his Test debut, and made centuries in his first two Tests, but went through a run of low scores and seemingly reckless dismissals on the string of away tours that followed, and struggled to establish a permanent spot in the middle order. That was only until 2019, when he moved up to the top of the order in Tests, that he became a proper all-format player.
All along that journey, Rohit faced constant criticism for being unfairly favoured and given a far longer rope than other players with similar records at similar stages of their careers.
It may seem unfair, but there are players who just look the part - they're unhurried by pace and bounce, they have shots all around the ground, and have techniques with no obvious flaws - and some of them take time to find their run-scoring groove. Selectors know this, and don't rush to judgment based on a string of low scores. Batting is a fickle pursuit at the best of times, a pursuit where failure is constant and luck hugely influential, and where the link between sound processes and success can sometimes seem tenuous.
Over a large enough sample size, however, that link usually becomes clearer, and good players end up with good records. Over a career of 47 Tests, Rahul averages 33.44. Since the start of 2018, he averages 25.82, and he's made just six 50-plus scores in 48 innings.
There are mitigating factors, though. Rahul's career has coincided with India's batters facing challenging conditions frequently, both at home and away, in Test cricket. The top-three batters in Tests involving Rahul have averaged 32.98. Virender Sehwag, one of India's greatest openers, averaged 49.34, but his career coincided with largely batting-friendly conditions. On average, top-three batters averaged 44.49 in Tests involving Sehwag.
There's a reason, then, that India have shown so much faith in Rahul.
They may yet leave him out in Indore, but it won't be because they have lost faith in him. It'll be because Shubman Gill has been looking, and batting, like he's destined for greatness. He's been doing this on the flatter surfaces of white-ball cricket, mostly, and India know it might take him time to score as consistently and as heavily in Test cricket. But like they did with Rohit, and like they have done with Rahul, they will give him the time he needs.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo