Is KL Rahul a T20I failure for India?

KL Rahul has a lopsided record in the shortest format for India against top attacks like Australia, England, New Zealand and Pakistan. 
 
KL Rahul

KL Rahul has an impressive overall T20I record but has been a longstanding failure against the world's best attacks. 

An attempted defensive prod-cum-guide through deep-third for an intended single resulted in a thick inside edge that crashed back onto the stumps and KL Rahul's T20I comeback for India was over with a first-ball duck versus Pakistan. 

The right-hander perhaps underestimated the bounce that a rare pace-friendly Dubai track had on offer for the seamers, which allowed young Naseem Shah to produce a rising skidder outside the off-stump and left Rahul ruining the fact that he went for it with an angled bat. 

Having just returned after a three-month absence, one could excuse Rahul for misjudging the bounce and the slight inward movement that Shah generated. When you're making a comeback at this level, you need to bide your time in and hope you have some luck along the way. For the Indian opener, his first mistake was enough to lead to his downfall. 

Having been there himself, coach Rahul Dravid would be sympathetic for his namesake and likely back him to come up with the goods as the tournament rolls on, hoping KL Rahul finds his mojo with more game time ahead of the T20 World Cup in Australia. 

For a while, the think-tank has considered Rahul indispensable to India's World Cup plans, an incumbent at the top of the order alongside skipper Rohit Sharma. Even outside, there maybe criticism around his strike-rate, especially during the IPL, and relevant frustration that he seldom justifies his abundant talent with the bat in hand, but Rahul's slot in India's T20I side has hardly ever fallen under scrutiny. 

That perhaps changed for the first time on Sunday, with the new-ball dismissal versus Pakistan putting the elegant opener on the spot and leading to doubts over his position.

In a constantly evolving world, where the narrative keeps shifting, one could've simply brushed aside calls for Rahul's head as knee-jerk reaction to an early dismissal in a high-pressure game. 

But there is some undeniable truth to the claim on Rahul's performances for India in T20I cricket. One could attest to his incredible batting talent and promise, and yet nod in agreement with the numbers that do point out to a longstanding failure. 

With an average of nearly 40 and a strike-rate of 142.37 after 53 innings, one may wonder what the fuss about his record is. Look beneath these numbers, filter for India's sternest challenges, and there emerge a worrying skew in KL Rahul's T20I record for the country. 

The skew in KL Rahul's T20I record

Of Rahul's 53 T20I outings, 27 have come against Australia, England, New Zealand and Pakistan. Yet to face South Africa, he averages a middling 30.88 with a poor strike-rate of 133.56 in these matches. 

This, for a top-order player known for sedate starts and a gradual pick-up in his gears at the crease. Despite limited risk-taking, Rahul has tended to wilt at the crease against top-notch attacks, failing to withstand his own against the world's best bowlers. 

This record pales in comparison to his numbers in the remaining 26 innings, played against Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Scotland, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Namibia, where he averages 50.42 with a strike-rate of 149.75. 

Last year, over 11 matches including the T20 World Cup in UAE, Rahul managed to average only 28.90 with a strike-rate of 130.76. The tournament in the Middle East perhaps summed up Rahul's T20I career for India. He failed to conjure up scores versus Pakistan and New Zealand in defeats that realistically ended India's hopes, but smashed Afghanistan, Scotland and Namibia for scores of 69, 54 and 50*. 

While dominant against weaker oppositions, Rahul has been a player with feeble influence on matches versus the strong ones. A great player of ordinary attacks, an ordinary player of great attacks. 

One could argue that Rahul can only face up to the bowling he is offered in the opposition camp. But to carry such a heavy skew in his numbers over a healthy sample size versus quality attacks is highly concerning and does put the player rightfully under the spotlight. 

At a time when India have been willing to send down a reality check to a long-failing Rishabh Pant and a struggling Virat Kohli is under pressure to retain his place, there is a section of fans who believe KL Rahul should be subject to similar treatment and be told to put in performances that suffice his incumbency and justify his tag as India's No.1 opener.

At 30, with undoubted class about his game, Rahul could well mend this skew and prove to the player that India have always envisioned inside him. But that needs to happen quickly, for Dravid and selectors may soon be forced to dish him out the same treatment they just handed out to Pant. 

While they promoted Ravindra Jadeja up in Dubai, the team management may soon look to bring Pant back for his explosive nature and left-handedness at No.4. Rahul will then find himself in a direct tussle with Kohli, who has previously announced his wish to open the innings and play more pace match-ups while he undergoes a sustained dip against spin

If Rahul continues to fail at the top, India may start looking at Kohli as a powerplay aggressor and give him the freedom and the luxury to go after the seamers early as a last option to revive his T20I career in time for the World Cup.

Kohli may have slowed down outside the powerplay to spin again and played a largely scratchy knock versus Pakistan, but showed ample evidence of his willingness to buy into India's more attacking gameplay under Dravid and Rohit. 

Dravid will take heart from that, and may start considering Kohli as a potential opening partner to Rohit if Rahul doesn't find his mojo soon.

It's a set-up of unprecedented depth and options, and this is a team management open to maximising it, Rahul will know that too well after Pant's axing.