Who Rohit Sharma should open with in the T20 World Cup has made as much noise as a certain No 4 saga that stretched for close to two years in India’s 50-over side.
The top three pick themselves. Neither of them had to bat an eyelid for almost eight years now with Rohit, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli forming the bulwarks of the robust top-order that laid the foundation for many a win. All applicants were asked to look for places down the order, atleast in 50-over cricket.
Enter KL Rahul with his stylish yet clean hitting and consistent performances in the shortest format. Dhawan’s injury meant that the 27-year-old had a free run at the top recently. There is a good chance Rahul will walk into any other T20I side in the world, that’s how exemplary his records and has four quick-fire half-centuries from the last five games to boot.
The starts Rahul has given recently saw India put up big scores or chase down totals with minimum fuss. There’s a happy problem on the team’s hands now. The Pune Twenty20 International saw Dhawan finally break his shackles and bat with a fluency that has somehow eluded him in this format. That, again, was after Rahul had taken Lasith Malinga and Co to the cleaners in the powerplay.
It was towards the end of the six-over mark that the left-hander displayed his ability to find the boundary line, going back to his trademark drives and flicks. Rahul, with more shots in his repertoire, took a step back as Dhawan overtook his opening partner and zoomed to a fifty. It was a strange role reversal of sorts with the senior batsman having assumed the role of a constructor in the second game.
The injury break saw Dhawan fall down in the pecking order. There is little guarantee that he will be playing the first Twenty20 match against New Zealand at Auckland later this month. It remains to be seen if Dhawan would feature in any of those five T20Is. Moreover, he will be jostling for a spot in the Delhi Capitals lineup at the top of the order too with last year’s semi-finallists adding more names in their ranks.
With the clock ticking towards the T20 World Cup, India’s middle-order and the pace attack have also taken shape. The last few wins against West Indies and Sri Lanka could have given Virat Kohli a glimpse of how India’s batting approach should be if they have to score/chase a score in excess of 200.
While India have the services of Rishabh Pant, a returning Hardik Pandya and Co lower down the order, getting the team past the 50-run mark during the powerplay overs will be the key for a big score.
It is not easy to write Dhawan off. It’s not like the 34-year-old has not faced tough challenges in his career. At least in white-ball cricket, he has managed to find answers just when critics were on his back, displaying the mental steel the Delhi dasher possesses.
Despite Navdeep Saini and pace ace Jasprit Bumrah’s flawless display in the final T20I, it was the openers who were hogging space after the match. Even Kohli sounded annoyed at the inevitable comparisons between Rohit, Dhawan and Rahul.
“All three [Rohit, Dhawan and Rahul] are solid players and it boils down to who is batting better. Rohit has been a consistent performer for us. I don’t believe in pitting people against each other,” the Indian captain said at the post-match presentation ceremony.
Dhawan, blasé and carefree, sounded least perturbed by the competition for places. He said: “Rohit Sharma had a terrific 2019. KL Rahul has been performing very well over the last one-two months and is a very good player. Now, I have come into the picture. I performed well today.”
It’s not like India don’t have other options in the format. There is always the possibility of keeping the Rohit-Dhawan axis at the top and drop Rahul to one-down. That would mean that Kohli needs to bat at four. Is that something the team management will consider? We will get more answers in the months to come.
Despite playing in largely batting-friendly conditions against a listless bowling attack, Dhawan signalled that he has the hunger and the game to add to his 61 T20I caps. It would be foolish to think that an opening pair of Rohit and Rahul is the only way forward for India in T20Is, even though there are numbers to back it up. Either way, the Karnataka batsman is indispensable in the XI for the time being and it is Dhawan who has to play catch up.