It was a not-so-sweet 16 for Virat Kohli at the Brabourne Stadium on Monday as he got out for his lowest score in an One Day International in 2018. But when the leader did not deliver, his deputy stepped up and how. Rohit Sharma’s masterful 162 was more than what West Indies managed to score as a team as India recorded their best ever win against a Test-playing team to reestablish their dominance.
It was an innings that we have come to expect from Rohit Sharma. He is, perhaps, the only batsman in world cricket at the moment who will make you wonder if he *missed out* on a double century in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal instead of applauding him for the runs he scored. That’s been the impact of his penchant for scoring ‘daddy hundreds’ — he has now scored seven 150-plus scores in ODIs when no one else has done it more than five times.
While Rohit rightly walked away with the man-of-the match award, India’s biggest positives on the day came from elsewhere — the contrasting successes of Ambati Rayudu and Khaleel Ahmed.
So haphazard has India’s search for a solid No 4 batsman been that Rayudu’s 100 against West Indies was only the third century at that position since the 2015 World Cup for the men in blue. The 33-year-old ended a 22-month drought.
Having been backed by Kohli before the series began as India’s answer for the middle-order puzzle, there were questions if it was a bit too premature. Sure, Rayudu impressed in Kohli’s absence in the Asia Cup after missing out on a chance to play in England due to a failed YoYo test. Based just on that, to suggest that he was the definitive option till the World Cup was a big leap of faith on Kohli’s part.
For now, though, Rayudu seems to be relishing that show of support.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say Rayudu has had a rocky career so far. From his days as the next-big-thing in Indian cricket when he broke out as a teenager, to his various off-field issues that threatened to derail a promising career, and then finding redemption through the IPL, Rayudu had pretty much seen it all. One thing that was missing, as far as his India career was concerned, was a lengthy spell with the team without being dropped. In the 63 months since his ODI debut, he has played just 44 matches.
But now, for the near future, he doesn’t have to worry about his place in the next match every time he walks out to bat.
It is perhaps the security that translated into a confident knock at Brabourne, when he went about building a 200-plus partnership with Rohit. He took his time at the start but once he got a feel for the pitch, went about out-scoring Rohit for most of their partnership, strike-rate wise. He was the aggressor when Rohit played his typically patient innings until he reached a hundred and pierced gaps at will. He was especially strong against the spinners.
His 80-ball 100 was an innings that perfectly encapsulated why the No 4 position is so crucial, when a team loses early wickets. And it was also an illustration of why Kohli sees what he sees in Rayudu to fulfill those responsibilities.
It is still early days, but Rayudu is doing the only thing he should be focussed on — grabbing the opportunities that come his way.
Khaleel’s impressive spell
While Rayudu is the grizzled veteran who is finally getting serious backing in India colours, Khaleel is at the other end of the spectrum. Fast-tracked through the ranks after playing tennis ball cricket in his early days, Khaleel’s talent was considered serious enough to cause a mini bidding war at the last IPL auction, eventually being picked up by Sunrisers Hyderabad.
In his brief brush with IPL so far, Khaleel has spent a couple of seasons learning about more than just bowling pace from Zaheer Khan at Delhi Daredevils. The Rajasthan youngster has gone on record saying how crucial learning technicalities of swing bowling from Zaheer proved to be in his evolution, especially learning to swing the ball back into right-handers. He didn’t get to play more than a game with SRH in the last season either, but spent enough time as understudy to Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Add to this the stints under Rahul Dravid with India A and he has had inputs from serious names in the business to help him adjust to international cricket without having to go through the rigours of domestic cricket.
The youngster told Sanjay Manjrekar in the the post-match conversation that he has been working hard on getting the ball to move back into the right-hander with Bharath Arun (bowling coach) and was able to implement it against the West Indies on Monday. His release, which was dissected on air, was a thing of beauty as his wrist-position was a study in perfection in getting the seam to either align with the stumps or away from them when he got the ball moving both ways in a spell of incisive swing bowling, not seen from a left-hand pacer in India colours probably since the days of Zaheer and Irfan Pathan.
His dismissal of Rovman Powell was a study in setting up a batsman. He bowled a couple of balls short of good length, angling away and then bowled one fuller and made it straighten to hit the off-stump.
And against Marlon Samuels, he bowled the perfect away-swinger — fuller in length, white ball moving away under the lights with the seam pointing to Rohit Sharma at first slip, who completed a sharp catch when the outside edge was taken.
In those four overs of his first spell, Khaleel validated the efforts of everyone who has worked toward getting him to play top level cricket in double-quick time compared to many who spend seasons and seasons sharpening their skills on dead pitches around the country. It helps that he is a left-handed seamer who has got serious talent — something Indian cricket has missed in the recent past.
As Harsha Bhogle pointed out, Rayudu is one of the great survivors of Indian cricket. On the other hand, Khaleel, one of the emerging talents, is benefiting from the modern day talent-spotting and fast-tracking process. And the duo delivered performances in Mumbai that vindicated Kohli’s backing to help India record a thumping win.