Opener KL Rahul smashes a century on ODI debut against Zimbabwe, and follows it up with an unbeaten 63 one match later.He doesnt play an ODI till January 2017. There was just no way he could break through Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma. Over the next two years, Rahul had a few opportunities at the top when either of the two were injured or resting. But whatever he did would never be enough given thats how strong Dhawan and Rohit are.
But Rahul didnt give up. He kept showing his class in the IPL and wherever else he batted. He scored heavily, and beautifully. There was no way the selectors could ignore his class.
So they tried to fit him into the middle order. The top three was settled, but the No. 4 was always open. Rahul had to move out of the comfort zone. He averages just 16.66 from eight ODI innings as a non-opener. He needed pace on the ball when he started an innings; the spinners in the middle overs were never going to give him that.
Rahul tried. He failed.
India then gave up. Rahul batted at No. 4 last year in England but was dropped after two games. He stayed in the squad though, but purely as a reserve opener. The only ODI he played from mid-July 2018 till March 2019 was against Afghanistan in the Asia, as an opener when Dhawan and Rohit were rested. Rahul scored 60, but he had to make way next game. There was just no way he could break through Dhawan and Rohit.
And then came failures in Test cricket, and issues off the field. Rahul gave plenty of reasons to be dropped, but even amid all the turmoil, he continued to show his class in the domestic circuit. The selectors couldnt ignore him. He came back, but once again couldnt break through as Dhawan and Rohit had to keep themselves game-fit before the World Cup.
So India tried Rahul one more time. This time, as a No. 3 as part of their experiment to strengthen the middle order by pushing Virat Kohli down to No. 4. He made 26 in that game, against Australia in Mohali, and was back to the bench for the next.
Rahul would spend the next one month or so wondering if he would make it to the World Cup squad. He hadnt done enough to convince the selectors that he could be a middle order option, but he had one last chance in the IPL.
In the previous IPLs, Rahul showed that he can smash the new ball around the park when there is pace on the ball. He was a dasher, scoring 659 runs in IPL 2018 at a strike rate close to 160. It included a half-century off just 14 balls. It was brilliant to watch, and earned him a spot in the Indian middle order briefly. But there were no signs that he could bat there, and it showed soon.
IPL 2019 was different. It was his last chance to push for a World Cup slot. Rahul realised he was never going to break Dhawan and Rohit. There was a vacancy at No. 4. Smacking the ball around wouldnt be enough. Rahul had to show he could bat like a middle order batsman, while opening in the IPL. He did that scoring 593 runs, but in a much different manner to 2018. The strike rate came down to 135. The number of boundaries reduced too, Rahul was now scoring by running, as a middle order batsman would in ODIs.
Yet again, the selectors couldnt ignore him. They picked Rahul, while making it clear he was a back-up opener.
But that wouldnt be enough for Rahul. An injury to Vijay Shankar gave him a chance to bat No. 4 in the warm-up against New Zealand, and he managed just six. There was only one chance left. One last chance to make an impression in the middle order, in the next warm up match against Bangladesh. He grabbed it, scoring a 99-ball 108. Like catching a tube moments before the doors shut. From nowhere, Rahul became Indias World Cup No. 4 at the very last moment.
In the first two games, Rahul had to adjust to two vastly different situations a middle-order batsman would face. Against South Africa, he had to form partnerships in a tricky chase on a tough pitch. Rahul did a fair job scoring a patient 26. Against Australia, Rahul came deep in the first innings when India were trying to stretch their score, and hit 11 off three.
But just when hed have been mentally training himself to be a middle-order batsman, Rahul has now been forced back to the top of the order thanks to Dhawans injury. Barring that one game against Afghanistan last year, Rahul last opened in an ODI in January 2017. He has batted as a non-opener more times in ODIs than as an opener.
Rahul now has to open at least for the next three games.
"The advantages of playing in various situations is that you understand the game a lot better," explained Indias batting coach Sanjay Bangar of the constant switches Rahul has had to make.
"So if youre a top order batsman and you get to bat in the middle order, then you get to know the challenges faced by the middle order. So if a player is able to do that -- and if you look across the history of the game, players have been very versatile, and here if you can take his namesake Rahul Dravid back at the various positions, actually, it helped the team big time.
"You know how challenging it can be, wherein you need to negotiate two new balls, but you also understand that there are all these boundary opportunities. There are a lot of big gaps out there in the field, and if youre in the top order batting in the middle order, you suddenly understand, okay, the balls which you would have hit for four in the first 10 or 12 overs, you only get a single.
"So its a mental adjustment, and any player who is able to do that requires a lot of skill, but ultimately it will enhance the position that he will bat in, and it will help the teams cause big time."
Rahul seemed to be trying to get into the zone a day ahead of Indias match against New Zealand in Nottingham. While the rest of the team played outdoor, he had a separate intense throwdown session in the indoor nets.
The opening slot is his preferred, and natural, position. And still, there is a big mental shift to be made. Not just for Rahul, but for Rohit too as the duo has never opened together in an ODI. Dhawans are big boots to fill. Can opener Rahul slot back in, after see-sawing from one position to another?