Virat Kohli was back in his element during the second One-Day International between India and Australia on Friday, scoring a 76-ball 78 to help his team level the three-match series. It was a commanding knock that showed, yet again, that the skipper is best suited to bat at No 3. After his experiment to bat one position lower in the first game backfired, Kohli returned to the slot he is most comfortable in and excelled as he usually does.
Apart from Kohli, Rohit Sharma is, perhaps, the only other batsman in the Indian team who is considered a sure-shot pick on any given day. The two have cemented their spots in the top order over the years with one match-winning performance after another. However, anyone who saw the match on Friday will tell you that there is one other batsman in the Indian team currently who deserves such certainty about his role. That player, of course, is KL Rahul.
It is no secret that a batsman benefits greatly by having clarity about their position in the order. Having the option to visualise their role before each match can help a player prepare better and in turn, bring their best out. There are innumerable greats in the game who thrived by batting in the same position through the better part of their careers. Sadly for Rahul though, he is not being given this privilege.
The opener was asked to bat at No 3 in the first ODI and came up with a stroke-filled 47. In Rajkot on Friday, he was pushed further down the order to No 5 (this was only the second time in his ODI career that he batted lower than the No 4 position) and ended up delivering the innings of the match.
The 27-year-old arrived at the crease in the 33rd over with India’s score being 198/3. The last man to be dismissed was Shreyas Iyer, who threw his wicket away after failing to handle the pressure created by Adam Zampa and Mithcell Starc. Rahul, though, made it amply clear that he is operating on a different level these days when he hit just the third ball he faced for a sumptuous cover-drive to the fence.
From there on, the right-hander put on a master-class on how to build an innings. He batted with limited risk till Kohli was at the crease, before seamlessly switching to the finisher’s role in the final powerplay. What’s most fascinating about his batting is the fact that just like Kohli and Rohit, he can send the ball all the way with textbook cricketing shots. In the 46th over, he drove a 140 kmph delivery from Starc over the deep extra-cover boundary for six with such ease that the commentators seemed short of adjectives to describe what had happened.
Rahul finished his innings with 80 runs from 52 balls as the hosts put on a mammoth 340/6 in their 50 overs. With Australia losing by 36 runs eventually, there’s no doubt that it was Rahul’s knock that set the momentum, put scoreboard pressure on the visitors, and won the game for India.
“Batting at No 5 and batting like that for the team, this is probably the best he’s played at international level. That knocked showed maturity and class,” said Kohli after the match.
Rahul, too, spoke about how batting up and down the order is a challenge he is enjoying. “Reading of the game has got a lot better for me now that I’ve played in different positions and batting becomes a lot more enjoyable,” he said at the post-match press conference on Friday.
“So coming up to every game and having a new responsibility and a new role is also a blessing. I don’t think a lot of batsmen get that so that is how I look at this and I am enjoying my batting. I have always opened the batting so that’s the position I am most comfortable in and I know how to build my innings. But I get to learn so much about my own self and about my batting and batting as an art when I get to bat at No 3 or 4 or 5, and I am kind of enjoying it and finding new ways to counter bowlers, new ways to handle situation. I don’t look at it as pressure, it’s something like an opportunity and I will try to play it the best I can.”
With his seemingly effortless batting in the middle order on Friday, Rahul has encouraged the idea of using him in that role on a consistent basis. However, a look at his numbers of late will tell you that he is in the middle of an incredible purple patch. Irrespective of the position he is batting in, he is likely to succeed more often than not.
Over the past three months, Rahul has scored 650 runs in 13 ODIs and T20Is at an average of 54.16 and a strike-rate of 116.27. This run also includes an ODI hundred and six half-centuries.
It is all good till he keeps scoring and the team continues to win. But by not providing him a fixed number to bat at, the Indian team is not only doing a disservice to his potential but also, unnecessarily, running the risk of unsettling his rhythm.
India have struggled for far too long to find batsmen who own positions in limited-overs cricket. It is ironic that with Rahul, a player whose ability can match that of the very best, they’re struggling to find a permanent role.
He, like any other player, has also gone through fragile phases in his career. Offering him a fixed position in the batting order will surely help him sustain his form. He is often expected to help his team by switching roles and the team, too, shouldn’t hesitate in helping him out if need be.