5th test, India v/s England, Chennai
From the top tier of the Northern Stand at the Wankhede stadium last week, in the fourth test between India and England, 25-year-old batsman Karun Nair looked like more of an afterthought on the pitch. Virat Kohli had been batting for a while already, when Nair walked in at the fall of Murali Vijay. It wasn’t what the crowd wanted. They were used to seeing one of their Mumbai boys – Ajinkya Rahane or Rohit Sharma – walk out at this position. But this was India’s first test in the city without a player from it. They had to “make do” with the likes of Nair and Parthiv Patel after him. He struggled a bit, and failed to read the turn of Adil Rashid. They reviewed and unlikely LBW call against him, and just like that, he was out on 13. No fuss, no emotions, nobody cared much. He was after all only filling in for bigger boots. He had just turned 25 a few days ago, and he may have already been ruing his temporary position and bad luck, given that he was run out by his own captain in his debut innings before this one.
A week later, everyone knows the name. His good friend KL Rahul is now an afterthought despite scoring 199. Karun Nair, the unremarkable kid who isn’t much to look at in either style or form at the crease, is now only India’s second triple-centurion in test cricket – after Virender Sehwag, and almost 13 years to the day Sehwag did it on the same Chepauk ground at Chennai. It took Nair only 3 test innings (as compared to the previous earliest of 9) to reach this landmark – a world record on its own. His was only the 30th triple in test cricket.
He became only the fifth batsman ever to reach his 100, 200 and 300 on the same day – Sehwag was the last one to do so. He became only the third batsman ever to convert his maiden test century into a triple – after Garry Sobers and Bob Simpson. He became only the fourth batsman to score a triple century at no. 5 or lower in the order after Michael Clarke, Don Bradman and Brendon McCullum. Out of the modern-day batsmen, only Brian Lara was a younger triple centurion than Nair – whose domestic highest score is 328 a year ago for home state Karnataka against Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy final. This is also the highest-ever Ranji Trophy individual score by a batsman. He had become only the second-ever Indian player to score a triple in a Ranji final back then. He averages 51 in first-class cricket.
He scored 230 runs on the day alone here in Chennai, plundering the bowling between 100 and 300 with sweeps all over the place. He went past idol Sachin Tendulkar’s 248, (mentor) Rahul Dravid’s 270 and VVS Laxman’s 281 in a matter of a few overs. He almost got out to Rashid – the same bowler who had dismissed KL Rahul for 199 – on 299, before stroking him for a misfielded boundary to get to 303. He became the only batsman ever to finish on this test score.
759/7 became India’s highest ever test total, and Virat Kohli had contributed 15 of them only. Cheteshwar Pujara had contributed 16 and Murali Vijay 29 – India’s three premier test batsmen had made only 60 out of these 759 runs. India scored 380 runs on the day, the highest-ever fourth-day score in India. Nair plays for the Delhi Daredevils franchise in the IPL, and made his ODI debut earlier this year in the Zimbabwe tri-series under makeshift captain Ajinkya Rahane.
One can’t begin to imagine the embarrassment of riches the Indian selectors must feel they have – at least in home tests – given that every single batsman is now in form, even the ones who are injured and sidelined. Parthiv Patel has twice opened the innings and scored fifties, KL Rahul is a four-time centurion at the top, Murali Vijay (though injured) is fresh off two centuries in the series, and R. Ashwin has served as the “batting bowler” at no. 7 all year. Will they actually consider dropping Karun Nair to make place for the seasoned Rahane in the next test against Bangladesh? Or will they tell an unfortunate Rahane to “earn” his place back in home conditions? Rahane has long been India’s go-to batsman in overseas tests, and he even came of age on home pitches last year when he scored two centuries in the same test against South Africa. But Nair surely can’t be dropped after his mammoth, miraculous and heroic effort in the Chennai sun. He may not look remarkable, but to be on song for so long and not throw it away takes a special kind of talent – one that Rahul Dravid, his India A coach and Karnataka mentor possessed in abundance for a very long time. Astoundingly, Nair could have gone on after scoring 303*, and broken the record for India’s highest ever individual test score (Sehwag’s 319).
Guys like Rohit Sharma, who’ve been given many opportunities in test cricket, will be insecure now once they get back from injuries. Nair is after all playing at his position in the middle order. Shikhar Dhawan’s career has effectively been halted by the rise of KL Rahul – whose first four centuries have all come in different countries. Even Vijay will feel a little unsafe, given Parthiv Patel’s form, while Wriddhiman Saha has suddenly become the second-choice keeper after a terrific series against West Indies and New Zealand, only because he got injured.
Test cricket is a funny game. But it is a game India can never have enough of. To end the year with only the season’s second triple century (Azhar Ali’s 302* came at Dubai against West Indies in October) is a terrific achievement, more so coming against a team favoured to give India a bit of fight in these conditions.
India may or may not go on to win the match, but Nair’s effort is a crucial one, given that this is perhaps the most fertile period for the young Indian middle order in test cricket.