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Can Triple Ton Man Karun Nair Add Stability to India's Floundering Middle Order?

Karun Nair lived a dream in December 2018, but his journey since then has been a roller-coaster ride

Karthik Lakshmanan |August 15, 2018, 6:50 PM IST
Can Triple Ton Man Karun Nair Add Stability to India's Floundering Middle Order?

How life changes in a matter of three Tests!

On December 19, 2016, Karun Nair was living a dream, thrashing helpless England bowlers for fun at the MA Chidambaram stadium in Chennai. It was just his third Test, and Nair became India's second triple-centurion after Virender Sehwag, and only the third player in history to convert a maiden Test ton into a triple.

Naturally, the stunning, unbeaten 303 went on to define him for the immediate future. So much so, that he even got a Ford Mustang with a number plate that read KA 03 NA 303.

But it didn’t take much time for Nair to realise that life wasn’t always that rosy.

The competition for spots in the Indian middle order was so high that he had to make way for Ajinkya Rahane in the one-off Test against Bangladesh. Nair thus became only the fourth batsman to be excluded from the playing XI of the next Test after scoring a triple hundred in his previous game.

The Karnataka batsman did win back a place in the XI for the home series against Australia, but only managed scores of 26, 0, 23 and 5. By then, memories of the triple-ton had faded away, and Nair came crashing down.

"If I have to be honest, after the 300, I did get weighed down by those expectations,” Nair told Sportskeeda recently. “It took me a couple of months to get back on track."

The couple of months he took, however, cost him big. Nair lost his place in the Indian Test squad immediately, and hasn’t featured in any of the 15 Tests India have played since the final Test against Australia in Dharamsala last year.

But even when he was out of the Indian side, Nair didn't completely fall out of radar. The selectors kept him in the loop, naming him captain of the India A side for a tour of South Africa. Nair returned with mixed fortunes, scoring 136 runs from four innings that included a 90 that helped India A seal a come-from-behind win.

Once back home, Nair constantly kept knocking on the doors and reminding the selectors with consistency in the domestic circuit. He scored 612 runs from seven matches in the Ranji Trophy 2017-18, averaging 68 with three tons and one half-century. These numbers weren’t enough to make it to the South Africa Test tour, as India went with Rohit Sharma and a wicketkeeping option in Parthiv Patel.

Nair’s life had come a full circle from the highs of December 2016 to the lows of December 2017, and the rollercoaster ride taught him ‘unforgettable lessons’.

“I started expecting too much from myself. It took me a long time to realise I was being too hard on myself. It came to a point when I had to do something about it and the best thing I could do was to let go,” he had said then, after being overlooked for the South Africa tour.

“I started playing cricket like I did when I was a schoolboy. I started enjoying middling the ball. I’m still working on it because it can’t change in a couple of months. Now, I’m not into numbers, or even if I don’t do well, I know there is another game coming up. In the past year, I have seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Good that I have experienced all that in the early stages of my international career. Going forward, this one year will help me improve my game and get me stronger mentally. I’ve learnt unforgettable lessons.”

The mental struggles and the consistency in domestic circuit soon bore fruit. Rohit Sharma, the batsmen India relied on to do the job in the middle order, managed only scores of 11, 10, 10 and 47 in South Africa. The failures saw Rohit out, and Nair in, for the one-off Test against Afghanistan in June. It stayed that way for the Test tour of England.

By then, Nair was ready to move on and start afresh. Move on from the 303, the lows and highs of 2017.

"It's time we all moved on and looked ahead," Nair said ahead of the Afghanistan Test. “I have become fitter. For one-and-a-half years I have been out of the team and making efforts to improve my skills. I have worked on batting and fitness. I scored runs in domestic cricket. I know for myself, I am a better batsman than what I was two years ago.”

That would be put to test, if at all Nair gets a chance in the remaining three Tests of the tour. All his six Tests have been played at home, and he couldn’t have asked for a tougher comeback to the Test world than in England, with India struggling.

Nair is known to be a technically solid batsman but his skills would be tested to the limit in England.

Those who have followed his career from the grounds of Karnataka point to a tendency to drive on the up and away from the body, and an instinct to play square of the wicket with an angled face. His back foot often goes back and straight, rather than back and across. Each of these creates a bat-pad gap, which sees Nair often getting out bowled through the gate or edge to the slip cordon.

Incidentally, Nair was bowled through the gate for just 4 in India’s warm-up game against Essex, where he batted at No. 9. But Nair is at least adequately prepared. He led India A in the four-dayers in England last month, and scored two half-centuries in three games.

The Indian top order’s misery in the ongoing tour has left the fans, and possibly selectors, searching for options for the future with names like Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal making the rounds. For now, though, India have Nair; if he does make a return to the side, he could complete a roller-coaster journey that began against the same opponent.

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