Autopsy Two: Where should KL Rahul bat?

posted on 2018-07-10 11:21:23
posted by Samreen Razzaqui

The only one series where he was consistently backed as an opener because of Rohit Sharma’s absence was the ODI series against England at home in 2017

Image courtesy: DNA India

Team India had begun the English Summer on a bright note. Kuldeep spun a web around the Englishmen like expected and it looked like India had a target at hand that they could chase with ease. And chase, they did. In the first five deliveries, it looked like India was struggling to match the devastating duo of Jason Roy and Jos Buttler and Shikhar Dhawan’s dismissal for a single digit score in the first over did not help either. But then came Virat Kohli’s first real instance of experimentation, sending KL Rahul in at 3, a position that is usually his own.

And Rahul did not disappoint. Two balls in, and he hit a glorious six over cover. As the innings progresses and he reaches a nonchalant half-century, you, an Indian fan, are hoping that he goes on to hit his second T20i century, carry forward what he showed in a fantastic IPL season and make sure India win their first game in what is expected to be one of the best contests in the calendar year. He does what you’re hoping for and now you’re also given the belief that India’s middle order worries are sorted with Rahul at 3 and Kohli at 4, the No. 4 problem is resolved and Rahul has been given a position that suits him.

Myth busted, though, the position still does not suit him as much as you think. It is tough for the management to fit in Rahul at the top of the order, where he is best suited, given that Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan are nearly undroppable in the eyes of the management. While most may understandably not consider the IPL as a parameter to make decisions in International cricket or shun it off as an example of recency bias, but one can’t deny that they provide a unique perspective in Rahul’s case.

Why the IPL numbers matter in this case

Firstly, Rahul’s game is heavily dependent on how strongly he deals in the power play and that became more obvious in IPL 2018. Out of the overall 659 runs he scored in the season, he made 357 runs in the first six overs alone. What makes it all the more special is that he was in the company of explosive openers such as Sunil Narine and Jos Buttler in terms of strike rate, but was far more consistent in making runs during the power play period. Rahul, despite shouldering much of the responsibility at Kings XI Punjab, played with freedom like no other. He batted at an average of 54.92 (the highest after MS Dhoni’s 75.83) and a strike rate of 158.41.

What really was the difference between the Rahul that played for RCB and the one that played for KXIP? Several factors contribute to that - the certainty about his role, his growth as a player and the realization that he is the one who has to take the responsibility when the rest of the batting order has been underwhelming. For a player who was criticized for his temperament several times emerged as one of the few players who did justice to his 11 Cr. price tag by notching up several knocks under pressure.

A different beast in the shortest format

In his 15 innings long T20I career, Rahul has quite a few performances that he can boast of. 47* vs Zimbabwe at Harare, 70 vs Ireland 2018 at Dublin, 71 vs England at Nagpur, 61 vs Sri Lanka 2017 at Cuttack, 89 vs Sri Lanka at Indore – the fact that 5 out of 7 of his most impactful innings’ have come at the top shows the trend.

Interestingly, his two centuries have come only when he batted in the middle order and that can understandably become an illusion that could lead us to think that he may actually be the perfect fit in a the middle order for a team that is heavily dependent on its top three.

(via HowSTAT)

The 101* vs England at Manchester just this week came when he batted at No. 3. In Lauderhill, he came to bat at No. 4 and struck his highest score, an unbeaten 110* vs West Indies. Apart from the fact that he wasn’t dismissed in either knock, they had one more thing in common – he came to bat within the six overs, i.e. the powerplay. In Manchester, his turn to bat came in the first over itself. In Lauderhill, he came in at the 5th over. It only further strengthens the point that he can be your answer for the middle over only when one of the openers is dismissed early. Not to forget that using KL Rahul at 3 means Kohli too bats out of his usual position. It pushes each batsman one position down.

Another interesting fact that demands Rahul’s presence in the T20i set up is that he has scored 670 runs in 14 innings. He has a terrific chance of breaking Kohli’s record of the fastest to 1000 T20i runs (27 innings).

Why hasn’t he looked threatening in ODIs?

While people are taking notice of Rahul as a force to reckon with in the shortest format, it is interesting to note that he was declared as a player fit only for Tests initially. But, he hasn’t been as impactful in 50-over-cricket in comparison. There is also the fact that he has batted in only 9 innings and in a different position thrice.

(via HowSTAT)

He has opened the innings 6 times. At the top, he has garnered 220 runs at an average of 55 and a strike rate of 81.78. His lone century and fifty (both against Zimbabwe) came at the top. Since then, he batted in the middle order. The solitary time he batted at No. 3, he managed to score 4 runs. He batted at No. 4 once where he scored 17 runs. He also batted at No. 5 where he scored 7. Many may argue that the sample size is too small to take a decisive call on whether he makes the cut for that role, but in the three times he has been tried out in the middle order, the instances have a story of their own.

In 2018, in the home series against Sri Lanka, he was batting at 4 and 5 and unsurprisingly, Rahul had a terrible outing in the ODI series. In the three innings he played, he scored 4, 17 and 7 and got out to Akila Dananjaya each time. However, when he opened the batting in T20i series that followed, it seemed like it had little to do with what people were calling a ‘mental block’. He looked at far more ease and less hesitant in playing his natural shots. In fact, he looked more authoritative against the spinners.

The only one series where he was consistently backed as an opener because of Rohit Sharma’s absence was the ODI series against England at home in 2017. In the three innings he played, he scored 8, 5, and 11. While it is debatable that if he had a memorable series then, he would have probably become undroppable from the playing XI, it is true that he had to bear the brunt for looking out of sorts at the crease.

It remains to be seen whether Kohli will back Rahul at No. 3 in ODIs again and follow the same strategy of him being a cushion to Rahul as it is in T20is. The No. 3 position in ODIs is traditionally for the best batsman in the side, someone who can carry forward the momentum provided by the openers and perform with the right balance of aggression and defence. Kohli is probably the best No. 3 batsman in the world right now, a position where he has 7495 runs and has 28 centuries.

Are external factors responsible for his underwhelming record in ODIs?

So, during the two ODI series, were we wrong in worrying about his deficiency against Dananjaya’s spin, or was his forgettable ODI series against England an after-effect of his painful dismissal at 199 in the 5th Test at Chennai, or were these two underwhelming series just a result of something as simple as a player being uncertain about his role in the team?

It’s not a case unheard of in the Indian team. Ajinkya Rahane is another example in this regard and to a certain extent even Manish Pandey is – both of whom had also been contenders for the problematic No. 4 spot along with Rahul, Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav.

Rahul, infact, was dropped from the ODI squad for the series against New Zealand because according to BCCI, he didn't fit into the decided combination. In addition to that, it was also cited as an instance of their rotation policy. It’s been over eight months since that happened but what Rahul’s role really is in either of the limited overs squads is still not clear.

Testing English conditions await him. He was welcomed warmly in his first ever game in England and he will hope that the country continues to embrace him. And hopefully, he’ll return home this time with clarity and most of us will have our answers.

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