The picnic is over. Virat Kohli's men have had a wonderful first week. They had a smooth and easy ride in idyllic environs here in Malahide, the sun has been shining hard since their arrival, and India have not complained. If there have been any headaches, surely it has to do with figuring who should comprise the Indian middle order during the limited-over series in England, especially in the ODI leg which follows the three-match T20I series.
KL Rahul might have won the Man-of-the-Match award after his strokeful half-century against Ireland on Friday. But there was an equally robust performance that matched Rahul's, and that came from the various bats of Suresh Raina, who made 69, one less than his teammate. At the presentation, Kohli said that he was spoilt for choices now that everyone was batting well.
In the first T20I, on Wednesday, Rohit Sharma fell three runs short of becoming only the second batsman to have the three centuries in T20I. The other Indian opener, Shikar Dhawan, hit a cracking fifty himself. Hardik Pandya joined the fun with a powerful cameo while Manish Pandey played watchfully to get 21. Incidentally, only Kohli has failed to get a proper look - scoring 9 runs off 10 balls this week , including a duck.
But the big question confronting India is who to pick between Raina and Rahul once the England ODIs begin on July 12. With Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli occupying the top order in the ODIs, the next two batsmen will play a critical role in either maintaining the momentum or setting the tempo.
You can hardly separate Rahul and Raina on current form. This year in the IPL, Rahul was the third highest run-scorer, with a strike rate of 158 and blasted the fastest half-century in the tournament's history, besides looking good for a century every time he got a start. Raina was among the top-15 run-scorers and integral to Chennai Super Kings winning the IPL.
On focusing the lens deeper, Rahul appears better equipped to deal with various bowling plans. One area where Raina has consistently struggled is countering the short balls. In the IPL this year, Raina scored 31 runs off 19 balls that were short-pitched, with a strike rate of 163.15 and was dismissed twice. Ten of those 19 were dot balls (52.63%). In contrast Rahul scored 127 off 38 short deliveries with a strike rate of 334.21, and played only 6 dot balls (15.78%). Rahul hit 13 sixes off short balls, Raina couldn't hit even one.
On Wednesday Malahide local Peter Chase had Raina playing awkwardly against a rib-high ball, to top-edge an easy catch. On Friday, Chase welcomed Raina with a short ball and the left-hander barely managed to fend it away.
On the other hand, Rahul who was playing his first match on Friday, was always in good positions. Against the short ball, too, he showed quick reflexes, quick feet, and strong wrists to hook the likes Boyd Rankin. Rahul hit two sixes off short balls on Friday, Raina hit none.
England would be keenly observing the Indian batsmen. Not that they don't have any prior knowledge. But form and confidence play a big role in countering the opposition. Rahul admitted the IPL form had played a big role in him adapting quickly to the spongy bounce. On his first trip to the UK, Rahul surely is keen to make an impression.
"It was important for me to make the most of the opportunity that I get," he said after the match. "I enjoyed myself in the middle, it was a good wicket. Bit of spongy bounce and back of a length balls were holding up a little bit. But if you spent some time, you could get used to it. I've been in good form and just got into good positions to strike the ball. It's important to use time off to work on technique, try to get stronger and remain in the right mindspace. With the type of team we have these days, it's difficult to get in. So Whenever I have off time, I try to get stronger.
"I've never played in the UK before," Rahul said, "Only seen on TV. We're all looking forward to it and take the challenge. It's what we've been doing, the last 3-4 years, whatever challenge is thrown at us. This series will also test our characters and we're looking forward to it."
Kohli said that India would treat England as any other opposition. However, he knows, unlike Ireland, England would ruthlessly expose any small weak point. For now he is unruffled.
"I am having a headache right now who to pick because everybody is batting well," Kohli said about the form of his batsmen in the post-match presentation. "But it is a good problem to have. Anyone who has been given chances they have grabbed the chance with both hands."