KL Rahul is missing from India's ODI squad for the New Zealand series because the hosts are looking at him purely as an opener and don't want to forecefully make him another middle-order option. Captain Virat Kohli explained on the eve of the first ODI in Mumbai that India were already carrying three openers - Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane - so it was decided to give Rahul more time in the first-class circuit.
For the middle order, India opted for Dinesh Karthik, who has amassed runs across formats in recent times. Even though Rahul was in the squad for the recently-concluded ODI series against Australia, he was dropped without being given a single chance.
"This series, Dinesh Karthik has come in for KL. We felt KL, because he opens mostly, we don't want to have a situation like Jinks (Ajinkya Rahane) was going through in between - having to play in the middle order forcefully because of what the top order was doing," Kohli said. "We thought it's better that he (Rahul) gets some game time in the first-class level so we got in Dinesh who has always played in the middle order. He is more comfortable and more aware of how to bat in the middle order. We need to strike that good balance, bring in guys who have the ability, who have done well in domestic cricket, who have done well for India A, you know track their performances and give them chances accordingly.
"It's not a situation where you just start giving chances to people so much that you compromise on winning the series because of lack of experience. We need to strike that good balance regularly."
Soon after being dropped for the ODIs, Rahul got a chance to open when he was drafted in for the warm-up matches against New Zealand. In the first match , he scored 68 off 75 balls in an opening stand of 147 with Prithvi Shaw but was only made to carry the drinks in the second match, for which Karun Nair moved up from No. 3.
Rahul had started his ODI career in impressive fashion when he became the first Indian to score a century on ODI debut, against Zimbabwe in June 2016. He got to open against England too, earlier this year, when Rohit was injured but only managed low scores of 8, 5 and 11, falling to early swing two out of the three times. Rohit opened in the Champions Trophy once he recovered, and now the only way to slot Rahul in the XI was somewhere in the middle order.
When India toured Sri Lanka in August, Rahul got opportunities at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in the ODIs but the runs still didn't come as he scored 4, 17 and 7, perishing to offspinner Akila Dananjaya all three times. Time was running out for Rahul because of the fierce competition in the Indian batting line-up. There could have been another chance to open for him when Australia arrived for five ODIs and Dhawan opted out of the series, but Rahane had been sitting on the sidelines for so long that he was given a go and he shone with four consecutive half-centuries. Coincidentally, he may also sit out of some of the New Zealand ODIs as the Dhawan-Rohit combo is set to reunite.
"He's definitely grabbed his opportunities as the third opener," Kohli said of Rahane. "As I mentioned, there was KL as well competing for the spot for a bit, but Jinks has really performed well, he stood up and taken his chances. That's how the dynamics of the team work, when you have four guys who play in a similar position, then obviously one of them will have to miss out. Even in the three, only two can play in the XI. Again, as I mentioned, we don't want to confuse him too much making him play in the middle order.
"You need to find your game in ODI cricket, you need to understand how to go about things in ODI cricket and he's always been very solid at the top order because of his technique. And he likes playing there as well, it gives him freedom to go after the bowlers. We don't want to confuse him, he's in a happy space, he knows whenever someone is not going through a good phase or there is an injury coming up, he's there, he is right at the doorstep waiting to play a game whenever the team requires him to. He's pretty happy with his batting at the moment."
Since Dhawan and Rohit have collected nearly 3000 runs while opening together, at an average of over 48, it only means Rahane is going to be the back-up opener. And Rahul, will be the back-up's back-up.