IND vs SA: The KL Rahul-Shikhar Dhawan debate dissected

IND vs SA: The KL Rahul-Shikhar Dhawan debate dissected

There’s already a lot of talk about the T20 World Cup which is slated to start in Australia in October 2020. While India’s middle-order muddle is yet to be resolved, there’s another debate that resurfaces time and again. And just like the muddle in the batting belly, India haven’t solved this opening conundrum yet.

While there is absolutely no doubt in which pair should be opening the batting in ODI cricket, it isn’t the same in the shortest format. There is a clear toss-up between Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul to partner Rohit Sharma.

Typically, India prefer to go in with Dhawan to partner Rohit Sharma at the top in white-ball cricket. It was the same in the second T20I in Mohali against South Africa. The Delhi left-hander even scored a fluent 40 as India chased down 150 with relative ease and started the home season with a win. However, there’s more to it.

The Rahul vs Dhawan case needs a deeper look.

Overall numbers in T20Is

Dhawan made his debut back in 2011 while Rahul did so in 2016. The former has played more than double the number of innings (53) than Rahul (25 innings). Despite that, the Delhi opener hasn’t been able to score consistently in the shortest. He averages 27.54 while amassing 1377 runs at a strike-rate of 129.54 in T20Is.

At the same time, Rahul has much better numbers in his short 28-game T20I career so far. The Karnataka batsman has accumulated 899 runs at an average of 42.81 and has a strike-rate of 148.11. Moreover, he has often been shuffled around the batting order. Rahul has opened for majority of his T20I innings but he has also batted at 3 and 4 quite a few times. Yet, he’s adapted really well. In fact, both his hundreds in this format have come at those positions.

Rahul’s lowest average in a calendar year is 36.00 which came last year where he scored 324 runs in 11 innings. However, in the other years, that average is generally touching 40 and his strike-rate is in the high 140s more often than not. Meanwhile, Dhawan has averaged 40 in a calendar year just once in his T20I career so far. In fact, he has never even been close to 30. The only other year he averaged more than 30 was in 2013 when he played just one innings.


Dhawan’s improvement since January 2018

Last year, Dhawan was a force in T20Is. He scored 689 runs in the year which was the most by any batsman in the shortest format. Personally, his average (40.53) and strike-rate (147.22) were his career-best in a calendar year. He also notched up six half-centuries. However, that form has faded away ever since the year has turned.

In 2019, the 33-year-old opener has looked a pale shadow of his 2018 self. Eight innings, 145 runs, an average of 18.13 and a strike-rate of 106.62. These are numbers despite the 40 he scored in the second T20I against South Africa. It’s like the struggling Dhawan in T20s is back.

For a large part of his T20I career, it looks like he struggles to force the pace at the top. While he is superb in the 50-over format, he struggles to switch the tempo and adapt. Dhawan has struggled in the IPL too. While he may average 33.17, he has a middling strike-rate of 124.78.

Rahul has the third-best average and ninth-best strike-rate in T20I history

In the 14-year T20I history, only 14 players have a career-average in excess of 35. Out of these 14, only three average more than 40. One of them is Rahul. He averages 42.80 which is the third-best after Babar Azam (54.21) and Virat Kohli (50.85).

Rahul’s strike-rate of 148.10 is the ninth-best ever in T20I history. Despite shuffling around in the top order, the Karnataka batsman has moulded his game and it hasn’t affected his flow and tempo. Moreover, the likes of Chris Gayle, David Warner and many more have a lesser strike-rate than Rahul.

Hence, the combination of his average and strike-rate makes him a utility player in the shortest format. Yet, he cannot find a place in India’s T20 XI straightaway.


Dhawan’s shoddy World T20 record

India have done well in the last two editions of the World T20. In 2014, they reached the finals while they suffered a heart-breaking semi-final exit in 2016. However, it was on the back on Kohli’s brilliance. The openers struggled and Dhawan, in particular had forgettable tournaments in both editions. In fact, he was dropped in both editions towards the end of the tournament.

In seven innings across both World T20s, Dhawan scored a mere 74 runs with a highest of 30. Only twice has he scored more than 20 in those seven innings.


Two hundreds, five fifties in 25 innings vs nine fifties in 53 innings

When Rahul first burst on to the scene, he was tagged as a Test specialist. However, over the years, he’s gone on to change that tag. He’s gone on to make a couple of hundreds in T20Is which is the second-most for an Indian batsman in the shortest format. Both his hundreds have come while chasing. Moreover, Rahul makes his starts count and has been dismissed in single-digits just four times.

Meanwhile, Dhawan has scored nine fifties in 53 innings in his T20I career, six of which came last year. Also, he has been dismissed in the single-digits as many as 20 times. Hence, the numbers favour Rahul here too.


IPL form

Dhawan may have had a couple of good IPLs but that’s nowhere in comparison to what Rahul has done in the last couple of seasons. The left-hander has scored 1018 runs at an average of 36.35 in 2018 and 2019 combined. However, Rahul has been superb in this period.

The Kings XI Punjab opener has scored 1252 runs at an average of 54.43 and at a much better strike-rate too. Dhawan’s strike-rate is 136 in this period while Rahul is striking at 146. Moreover, Rahul has struck 12 half-centuries and one hundred in the last couple of seasons while Dhawan has managed eight half-centuries.


Current form

Rahul has struggled in Test match cricket. He hasn’t been able to live up to the hype and hence, has been dropped. However, his white-ball form is much better. He had a good World Cup as he replaced Dhawan at the top of the order. However, it is his T20 form that has been the best over the last couple of years. Rahul’s last three T20I scores are 50, 47 and 20 (latest).

Meanwhile, Dhawan has looked scratchy ever since his return from injury. In all six white-ball games in the Caribbean, he looked a touch iffy. However, he did find some form in the ‘A’ series against South Africa. However, his T20 form isn’t great. He averages just 18.13 this year.



Despite Rahul leading the case in most of the areas, Dhawan is India’s preferred choice at the top of the order. Yes, he has improved since the start of 2018 but to keep a player of Rahul’s quality and of that record out is a questionable decision. Rahul might have struggled for form in Test cricket but his T20 form and T20 game is right at the top and in fact, he should be one of the first names in the playing XI. Moreover, according to CricViz, Rahul is the sixth best T20 player in India and the third best batsman. However, that isn’t the case.