Back in September 2017, ahead of the first ODI against Sri Lanka in Pallekele, Virat Kohli sat explaining how it was important for the middle order to be flexible.
“We are not going to be predictable or have a set pattern anymore (with batting plans). Anyone could go anywhere,” he had said.
And, then, he confirmed that KL Rahul would be batting at number four in that first ODI. As concerns unpredictability, this move wasn’t off the mark from the Indian skipper. And come to think of it, he had proper reasoning behind the decision.
For one, Rahul had a brilliant 2016 IPL for the Royal Bangalore Challengers. It was his last season at that franchise as injury had forced Rahul out of the 2017 season, and clearly Kohli hadn’t forgotten his contribution to their march to the 2016 IPL final.
The other bit was about Rahul as a batsman, away from all statistics. ‘A solid player’, is how the skipper had defined him. It was a measure of his growth from that nervy international debut in 2015 (Melbourne) to becoming an all-format player. It was also a pointer to the faith this Indian team management posed in him. But, Rahul failed.
Since the start of that ODI series in Lanka and before the start of this World Cup, he batted at number four in only three matches across nine months, averaging 17.33, with a highest of 26. Overall, he batted at a different position in the middle order across five matches during this time, averaging 17.50.
In ODI cricket, middle-order batsmen have a two-fold job – use momentum generated by the top-order to give direction to the innings and then accelerate in the death overs, channelling that same momentum if possible.
India’s ODI plan doesn’t work this way, though.
Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli have together scored approximately 55 percent of India’s ODI runs. That is a staggering number and underlines the dominance of this top-order in 50-over cricket. The key for them is to bat long – as long as possible, actually – and for this, they even start slowly at times, picking up the pace only in the middle overs.
In a broad generalisation, if the Indian batting plan goes well, the top-order aims to bat deep until the 30-35th over. It is seen in the manner they batted against Australia and Pakistan (Rahul was part of the latter instance).
In a manner of speaking then, this Indian top-order usurps the vital number four spot and then push-on for the slam-bang overs. Hardik Pandya coming in to bat in the 37th and 39th overs in those two games is the simplest explanation of this. Perhaps, it also explains why India’s number four experimentation failed so massively over the last two years.
You need a mercurial batsman, able to adjust his role – stabilising/building or attacking – as per the situation. You need a Yuvraj Singh (in his prime), or even an MS Dhoni, or at the very least, you need to afford the time to someone coming in, allowing him to become that player.
While the Indian top-order has been a finished product, performing at its peak, the middle-order batsmen weren’t afforded this time. Rahul’s failure, or that of others like him... chosen for the number four job, wasn’t his alone.
It isn’t easy being KL Rahul.
On his Test debut at the MCG (2015), he was pushed into the middle order. Then, he had to wait a while before the Dhawan-Murali Vijay opening combination came undone. It is almost a similar curve in the limited-overs’ formats – waiting for Dhawan-Rohit, and being trialled in the middle order, it is no wonder he has only played 17 ODIs since his debut in 2016. Even so, he understands the situation.
It is down to his strong temperament, modelling on Kohli, someone he looks up to whether it is fitness or shot selection. No, this is not a reference to random comments on a television show – instead, it is an observation of how he studies the game, prepares for it, and even waits for that chance to come along, like his skipper. It is also in proof that Indian cricket has been patient with Rahul, to discover himself, like it was with Kohli at one point (pre-2011).
Cynics may scoff at this analogy, however, and for good reason. For all his promise and this patience, Rahul is still quite some distance away from truly delivering. No, it isn’t a pot shot immediately after a well-compiled half-century at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Instead, it is a pointer to the intrinsic battle Rahul has been fighting to unearth his true identity as a batsman. Three years ago, he remodelled his game to succeed across all formats, but ever since, it has been a battle of sustaining that posture.
Clarity of role obviously helps him, as it would any cricketer. Look at how he has batted in the IPL, earlier for Bangalore and now for Kings XI Punjab. Previously, he was shunted down to the middle, an unnatural habitat for an opener.
Currently, wearing a different shade of red up North in the annual T20 fest, he looks far more at peace, evolving as their lead batsman with the freedom granted at top of the order. That same freedom is his on the international arena now, albeit for a short time while Dhawan is away injured. And yet, it was a seminal moment in India’s World Cup campaign when he was ruled out.
Batting at four in a tough chase against South Africa, and then reduced further to a three-ball cameo against Australia, the familiarity of opening the innings would have been a welcome change.
Only, it was in a pressure-cooker game, thanks to the washout against New Zealand.
That India-Pakistan game wasn’t one for the ages. Years from now, it will be remembered for Rohit Sharma’s attacking hundred (and that six!), Kuldeep Yadav’s superlative leg break to Babar Azam, and 7-0, of course. There was this one moment though, which shouldn’t go unnoticed.
It was Rahul, backing off in his crease, creating room as he smashed Mohammad Hafeez over long off. That shot had the IPL stamp all over it. In Dhawan’s absence, under overcast conditions, and against Mohammad Amir’s spell, it could have easily gone wrong.
Even as Rohit did his thing, Rahul held one end up, cut down risk and played a measured knock to set India up like they do in ODI cricket. It will be sufficient to replicate this for the next couple games until Dhawan returns. And then, Rahul will be ready to move down the order again. After all, he is the hallmark of India’s experimentation and their resultant batting flexibility.