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Is KL Rahul going the Rohit Shama way?

by Gaurav Sethi



Not too long ago, Ambati Rayudu and Rishabh Pant were the go-to guys of Indian cricket. Today, there’s little KL Rahul can’t do; hell, he was even made stand-in skipper in Rohit Sharma’s absence.

Top that, he has been the stand-out player in the last few months – up the order, middle order, keeping wickets, answering more questions than most, some tricky ones too; what you get when you’re man of the match, match after match.

It does look good for him now, though not too long ago, he couldn’t make it to the playing XI. But then that’s something that’s plagued both Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, more so in the Test format.

It’s bizarre but KL Rahul who made his Test debut in December, 2014, has played more Tests than both Rohit and Dhawan.

KL Rahul has played 36 Tests to Rohit’s 32 and Dhawan’s 34. Rohit made his debut in November, 2013, Dhawan, earlier in March that year.

Both Rohit and Dhawan made incredible starts to their Test careers, both scoring a century on debut. And big centuries at that – 177 and 187.

Both appeared to be the answer. Just as KL Rahul appeared to be the answer when he made that 110 in that drawn Sydney Test; only his second outing. Four of his five Test centuries came in his first two years; and even then, there was a pattern to his scores, hundred or not much else – the single digit scores across 19 innings were eight.

Rahul’s next century came after 28 innings, at the back of a tough England tour – where he and Rishabh Pant went collectively berserk in a dead rubber in a nigh impossible chase.

That century bought Rahul close to a year in Test cricket. But seven single digit scores in 12 innings with a highest of 44, saw the selectors look elsewhere.

Of the three openers, Rahul’s Test average is the lowest at 34. But seeing how Rohit’s average has shot to 46 on the back of just six innings at home, the temptation to return to Rahul (as they often did with Rohit) will always be there.

This temptation will be there because of Rahul’s brilliance and form in the shorter formats. It will always be there, because many, no less than Brian Lara, feel that he is India’s most talented batsman. Once upon a time, it was Rohit Sharma. And it was because of that talent that the selectors’ patience saw them stick it out till that home season of 2019-2020. When it was ordained that Rohit’s testing time was over, and his Test time had arrived.

***

One-day cricket is a format Rohit and Dhawan boss over. High batting averages, high strike rates, humungous opening stands; these two tick most opening boxes. Rohit is to ODI doubles what Dhawan is to ICC tournaments – until the 2019 World Cup when Rohit owned it without quite winning it.

***

KL Rahul’s batting average and strike rate are lesser than India’s first choice ODI openers (though not by much). It’s when either has an injury or is being rested that Rahul strolls back in. Which he did pretty early in the World Cup. Without having an exceptional tournament, Rahul played nine of his 29 ODIs there. Dhawan’s latest injuries gave Rahul two of his three ODI centuries – in just eight games.
                                            
It doesn’t take much to know that Rahul is in the white-ball form of his life. Rohit’s latest injury has ruled him out of the ODI and Test series in New Zealand. What will this mean for Rahul?

He will keep wickets and bat in the middle order while Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal will open. Two openers making their ODI debut – an opening stand of 50, both gone within four balls of each other. While your in-form opener doubled up as a keeper and moved down the order to five.

***

The Rohit-Dhawan opening, followed by Kohli at three, is a clear lesson in how form and confidence on top wins you more matches than anything the middle or lower order can hope to chip in with.

Both Shaw and Agarwal have made their Test debuts, but it’s still early days in their international careers. Rahul played in the middle order recently when both first choice openers, Dhawan and Rohit were available. Rahul scored 80(52) but that was after coming in at 198/3 in the 33rd over. In the Hamilton ODI, Rahul came in in the 29th over at 156/3 – he thumped two fat ladies, 88 with six 6s.

Prior to these 80s, his highest score at 4, 5 or 6 was 26 from six innings – an average of 17.5 with two not outs. Compare that to all his three centuries and five of his six fifties coming on top of the order.

But looks like Kohli-Shastri want to extract more from KL Rahul to balance the team.

In a World T20 year, where the fitness of Dhawan-Rohit continues to be a cause of concern; Rahul’s form has been a big bonus – tampering with that in the hope of team balance could see this Indian batting order unravel rather quickly.

***

In the last three Test series, Rahul had a highest of 44, and a batting average of 17.7. Leave the playing XI, he hasn’t made the Test squad for New Zealand.

But how on earth do you leave a player who is not just in the form of his life, but a world-beater when on song?

Stranger things have happened in Indian cricket; don’t be too surprised if somehow Rahul makes it. Just like Rohit returned when you least expected it.

The difference though could be, Rahul moving down the order, just as Rohit moved up to open.

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