KL Rahul's 50-overs conundrum
With the World Cup less than a year away, the Asia Cup was an opportunity for India to answer a few important white-ball questions. Three matches into the tournament, the most glaring questions center around KL Rahul.
Rahul came to the UAE on the back of an interesting white-ball summer. His T20 form was imperious. Fourteen IPL innings brought him 659 runs - all of them as an opener - at an average of 54.91 and a strike rate of 158.41. He made a 36-ball 70 in his only innings in Ireland, and followed that up with an unbeaten 54-ball 101 at No. 3 in the first T20I against England in Manchester.
Given that run of 20-over scores, Rahul might have expected a run in the ODI side too. But after scoring 9 not out - he came in towards the end of a successful chase - and 0 in the first two ODIs against England, he was left out of the series decider. And now, in the Asia Cup, he has sat out of India's three matches so far - this despite an extra middle-order slot becoming available with the selectors resting Virat Kohli.
This in-today, out-tomorrow sequence is fairly typical of Rahul's ODI career. Since his debut in 2016, Rahul has only played in 12 out of India's 47 ODIs. And since last year's tour of Sri Lanka, when the team management first tried him in the middle order, he has only featured in six out of 28 ODIs.
The team management gave Rahul an extended red-ball run in England, despite his averaging 14.12 in the first four Test matches. With the series lost, there were plenty of voices calling for the inclusion of Prithvi Shaw, but Rahul kept his place for the fifth Test at The Oval and scored a morale-boosting hundred on the final day of the tour.
Rahul has never quite enjoyed the same kind of run in the side in ODIs. His longest uninterrupted sequence so far is four matches, in Sri Lanka last year, when he was given a chance in the middle order after Ajinkya Rahane had claimed the back-up opener's role by scoring 306 runs at 67.20 in five matches in the West Indies.
Rahul only got to bat three times in those four matches, and each time he batted in a different position - No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5. He didn't really grab the chance, scoring 4, 17 and 7, and struggled to read the mystery spin of Akila Dananjaya, who dismissed him in all three innings.
While the situation - not having a long run of matches or a settled slot in the batting order - isn't ideal, it's the reality for anyone looking to break into India's middle order. There's just too much competition.
Ambati Rayudu, who is far from a regular in the side, averages 50.39 after 33 ODI innings. He came back into the ODI side after an IPL season as good as Rahul's. He top-scored for Chennai Super Kings - 602 in 16 innings at an average of 43.00 and a strike rate of 149.75 - while showing a lot more adaptability - opening, batting in the middle order, and even finishing innings.
There's Kedar Jadhav, who has come close to nailing the No. 6 spot with his innovative batting and invaluable part-time spin. There's Dinesh Karthik, who averages 53.80 since his ODI comeback last year. There's Manish Pandey, who can't break into the XI despite smashing 366 runs without being dismissed in a Quadrangular tournament where he batted against Australia A, South Africa A and India A.
Outside the squad there is Shreyas Iyer, who's made two fifties in five ODI innings, and has just scored a List A hundred for Mumbai in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. And there's still Rahane, who made 148 in Mumbai's previous match.
Given all the other options India have, batsman simply have to grab every opportunity. And while his opportunities have been scattered and seldom in one batting slot, Rahul hasn't yet grabbed them: after scoring 100*, 33 and 63* in his debut series against Zimbabwe, he has a highest score of 17 in eight ODI innings.
But while some of the other middle-order contenders may have made better use of their opportunities, Rahul is perhaps more lavishly gifted than all of them, and capable of batting at a jaw-dropping tempo in white-ball cricket. He's only shown it in T20 so far - in his most recent IPL season, and while scoring international hundreds against West Indies and England - but he's surely capable of translating that ability into 50-overs cricket too.
The difficulty for Rahul is that a slot at the top of the order, which is where he's batted all his life, is probably out of bounds, with Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan firmly established as one of the great opening pairs in ODI history. Virat Kohli, one of the all-time-great No. 3s, follows them to the crease. Rahul's opportunities are only likely to come at Nos. 4 or 5, positions that demand a certain amount of flexibility from batsmen, who from one match to another could be called on to maintain momentum, rebuild, change gears gradually, or explode upon arrival.
Does Rahul have the game yet to adapt? Does he still need to learn the more workmanlike aspects of middle-order batting, which the likes of Rayudu and Karthik are adept at? Can he tone down the impulsiveness that sometimes consumes him before the bowler gets him? Will making these changes take away from the very qualities that make him such a dangerous batsman?
There is possibly one solution, a case for India to look at Rahul as a No. 3 batsman and have Kohli bat at No. 4. This might not need Rahul to temper his flamboyance too much, at least on flat surfaces where he can trust his eye - such pitches are quite likely to be the norm at the World Cup next year. This could allow India to retain a formidable top three, in theory, with Kohli controlling the second half of the innings, and MS Dhoni perhaps gaining a little more freedom to go after the bowling and bat like he did in the IPL this year.
It would mean a change of role for Kohli, but not a massive one. And his record at No. 4 is more than impressive. In 37 innings there, he has made 1744 runs - with seven hundreds and eight fifties - at an average of 58.13 and a strike rate of 90.40, which isn't too far off his record at No. 3, where he averages 61.48 and strikes at 93.23.
To adopt this plan, however, the team management would need to weigh up Rahul's explosive potential, with the inherent risk of early dismissals that comes with his natural style, against the middle-order methods of Rayudu or Karthik, who have fewer frills but perhaps a little more know-how in adapting to different situations.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo