A miserable run of form in Australia attracted criticism over KL Rahul’s technique and confidence. Followed by a suspension, and a mini-resurgence recently, he has been handed a lifeline for nailing down a spot for the World Cup.
This also means more selection woes for India ahead of the showpiece tournament with just five One-day Internationals left – all of them against Australia. The selection of the ODI team in a particular can be interpreted as the Board of Control for Cricket in India admitting that the troublesome no 4 spot in the team is still up for grabs.
Ambati Rayudu has emerged as a front-runner there with a handful of assured displays since the second half of 2018. Now, the big-hitting Rishabh Pant will also get a chance to throw his hat in the ring against the Aussies.
Chief selector MSK Prasad, after announcing the squads, also announced that Pant will be given a proper run in the series, and that there will be chopping and changing.
How does Rahul fit in the scheme of things then? The Karnataka opener was found out in the two Tests he played in Australia. He has less than flattering numbers in ODI cricket, and has not featured in a single ODI since September last year. He couldn’t get a single knock of note during the T20I rubber against West Indies at home, and later, in Australia.
His toil continued after coming back from a brief suspension. Against a tepid England Lions attack, he failed to register a half-century in the three one-day games but came back in the reckoning with twin 80-plus scores in the unofficial Tests.
No 4 for India since 2017
Prasad, in a recent interview, said that barring one spot in the 15-man squad for the World Cup, the rest pick themselves. And It is easy to understand why Rahul being among the runs solves a few pieces in the puzzle. The 26-year-old was also tried at no 4 in the recent past, but failed to make an impression. Moreover, he can also double up as a back-up opener for the prolific duo Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma.
The table above shows that Rahul failed to latch onto the handful of opportunities he received, that too at a time when his Test career was going great guns. At the moment, Rayudu is clearly winning the race to the World Cup. The road to England got even more bumpy with MS Dhoni getting vice-captain Rohit Sharma’s backing for batting at two-down following a good run against Australia.
Pant, in his short career has never played in that position while Dinesh Karthik has numbers to make his case, he was overlooked for the ODI team. A couple of trademark blitzkrieg knocks from Pant against the reigning world champions will certainly open up more selection debates. Remember, packing the middle-order with power in what is expected to be a run-heavy World Cup will also factored in.
Karthik, used as a finisher lower down the order, was traded for Rahul and the 33-year-old can feel hard done by. Does this signal that the team management is happy with Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya, along with Pant, assuming the roles of finishers in the XI?
Jadhav, Dhoni and Pandya might have still not convinced certain quarters about owning a place in the line-up, and it won’t be a surprise to see them play all the five games.
This means that Rahul will have to fight it out against Rayudu. The Andhra batsman, since his return, has been an assured presence at the crease.
Clearly, though, the faith in Rahul has not disappeared despite runs drying up. On his day, he is a strokemaker par excellence, gifted with the ability to pierce gaps with ease and even clearing the boundary ropes. That Rahul is among a rare group of batsmen who has a hundred across formats, combined with his jaw-dropping displays in the Indian Premier League last season, have been take note of.
The Australia series may not be Rahul’s final audition either with the IPL getting underway next month. Disgraced at the turn of the year, Pandya redeemed himself in New Zealand.
Rahul, who has been given a chance to break the door down and cause more selection headaches, now has his turn. A settled middle-order is a must as Virat Kohli and Co fly to England as tournament favourites but there clearly some questions still to be answered.