Technique, expectations challenge India openers
Few gave India a chance going into the Champions Trophy last year. They had chosen a young squad over a few established names, and had a fresh pair of openers. One of them was making a comeback to the one-day side, albeit after a spectacular Test debut. The other had only recently been converted into an opener following several underwhelming years in the middle order.
Few would have expected Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma to start the Champions Trophy with partnerships of 127, 101, 58 and 77. It was even more of a surprise than India's roaring bowling form has been in the World T20 so far. Dhawan and Rohit went on to establish themselves as the first-choice limited-overs opening pair for India. They average nearly fifty in ODIs and have ten fifty-plus stands in 31 innings.
In the World T20, the expectations have ratcheted up significantly from the duo. They have become a hit pair in one limited-overs format, and are expected to carry that success into the shorter one as well. The bowling surprise has meant that they have not really been tested so far, and India will be hoping they will deliver when they come up against one, which will surely happen at some stage in the tournament, if not against Bangladesh on Friday.
While they may have spent plenty of time together in the middle in ODIs, Rohit and Dhawan had only one opening stand in T20s coming into this world event, worth 12 runs against Australia in October last year in Rajkot. India do not play much international T20 cricket, and the dynamics of opening in ODIs and T20s are vastly different.
Rohit is not a natural opener, and it is well known now that he likes to take his time in ODIs, occasionally at the cost of the flow of an innings. He has opened in T20s before - in the 2009 World T20 - but most of his innings previously in the format have come in the middle order. He made 24 off 21 before falling against Pakistan but once he got in against West Indies, he ensured he remained there until the end, finishing on an unbeaten 62 off 55. He's largely done what was required of him in those chases, especially against West Indies. As Rohit will know, his real challenge will come when he will not have the leeway of a benign asking-rate, especially if India's bowlers have an overdue off-day and he is handed a stiff chase.
Dhawan has a bigger challenge. Against Pakistan, he charged at Umar Gul and heaved a top-edge off a short ball once more but that is not his challenge. It can be argued he will have no choice but to attack the short ball in this format, and will have to make do with his tendency to get out in doing so. It is spin he has to combat. Mohammad Hafeez had a leg before appeal against Dhawan off the first ball the batsman faced in an unconvincing effort against Pakistan. Against West Indies, he was given leg-before off the third ball against Samuel Badree, although it was a poor decision with the ball appearing to miss leg. Like he did against Badree, Dhawan often gets cramped on the back foot and becomes vulnerable to the incoming or straighter delivery. It is not even a question of blocking away such balls; he is often too late bringing down his bat on them.
With tougher tests lying in wait, what Rohit and Dhawan will have to fall back on is the mutual understanding they have developed since June 2013, according to Rohit.
"When you have the right combination going around and you've batted for a while, together, you understand each other very well," Rohit said. "These things really matter when you play the short format. All those little things like running between the wickets and taking singles really matter. We've had a good understanding and a good run for the last year or so.
"The team expects a lot of us because we're the ones who set the tone for the games. It's important for us to take on that challenge. It's very important what you do in the first six overs in this format - whether you bat or bowl. As openers, it's important we give the team a good start. We know we've got a good middle order to capitalize."
That is the difference between the Champions Trophy and the World T20. The team, as well as the fans, now expect "a lot" from Rohit and Dhawan. Those expectations are about coming good on a night when India will dearly need them to.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo