You don't always hit the bullseye by aiming for it. Sometimes it's down to sheer luck and circumstances. That's exactly how India have stumbled upon a match-winning formula of sorts in white-ball cricket.
For a while they have been grappling with the tough call over who their first-choice openers will be. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have done very well in those positions for years. A left-right combination at the top is always desired, for that forces the bowler to change his lines regularly, which is not easy to do while maintaining control. Sharma and Dhawan have developed a partnership where they complement each other - if one batsman is feeling comfortable on a particular day, the other will happily play second fiddle. Dhawan would go hard against the fast bowlers and Sharma would go berserk against spin.
Though they say you shouldn't fix something that isn't broken, KL Rahul has repeatedly given reminders that he has the skills and the temperament to deserve a place at the top of the order. But given his versatility and the fact that Dhawan and Sharma were an established pair, he was forced to bat at four or lower.
If it wasn't for Rishabh Pant's concussion against Australia, Rahul would not have got the chance to keep wicket against New Zealand, as he has done. Since he has taken on that role, he has not only proved to be a very competent wicketkeeper but has also lent balance to the side. Kohli has gone on record to say that Rahul remains his first-choice wicketkeeper in white-ball cricket. Though Rahul's presence allowed the team to play Manish Pandey instead of Pant in India, and Shivam Dube as the sixth bowling option in New Zealand, the question about where Rahul should bat has remained.
First, Dhawan got injured and then Sharma took a break, and that allowed Rahul to open. He repeatedly proved himself to be one of the best India has with the bat. But when both Dhawan and Sharma became available again, Rahul was pushed down the order. And he responded brilliantly to the situation he was thrown into. His recent innings in Rajkot against Australia was one of the finest by an Indian No. 5 batsman in the death overs. Only MS Dhoni can claim to have played better knocks from that position in the last four or five years.
While Rahul kept fulfilling the new roles he was given, Dhawan also played a few crucial innings at an important stage of his career, when his position was under threat. He did what he does best - bring the best out of himself when his back is to the wall.
Dhawan regaining his form, the fact that Sharma's position in the side is unquestionable, and Rahul's excellent performances presented a dilemma for the selectors, who picked all three for the limited-overs leg of India's tour to New Zealand. It was left to the team management to either take the tough call to drop Dhawan or to push Rahul down the order - though his current form shouts out for him to be fielded as an opener.
"T20I is a lot about roles and you get the best out of players by ensuring that you put them in at positions that are ideal for them, and not by picking a team of the best batsmen and then putting them into slots"
Once again, circumstances solved the problem. Dhawan's unfortunate injury ruled him out of the New Zealand series. Rahul continued to open and keep wicket, and he returned with the Man of the Series performance in the T20Is.
While it's all fine as long as luck is doing the tough job for the selectors, the time isn't far when they will need to make a decision. It might be a little unfair on either Rahul or Dhawan but India must play the best players at their preferred slots. T20I is a lot about roles and you get the best out of players by ensuring that you put them in at positions that are ideal for them, and not by picking a team of the best batsmen and then putting them into slots. Remember how Australia fared in the last World T20 when they played five players who were each suited to bat in the top three and it backfired? India have also realised that Kohli should not bat lower than three, and so on.
Now let's move to the ODI format and analyse the utility of making Rahul keep again. It's a given that in Sharma's absence, he will be India's first-choice opener but is it a good idea to make him keep too?
Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar, Deepak Chahar and now Sharma - five of India's key players have got injured in the last ten or 12 months. All these injuries seem to be workload-related and are fairly serious.
I'm not suggesting that making Rahul keep will injure him, but it would increase the chances of that happening. His body might not be used to keeping wicket for three and a half hours and then opening the innings half an hour later. Yes, I hear you, Adam Gilchrist could do it, but then, he also trained his wicketkeeping muscles all his cricket-playing life. Thousands of hours of keeping develop and strengthen the muscles required to perform that role. And keeping in a 50-over game is very different from keeping in a T20I.
Let's assume that Rahul is supremely fit and doesn't break down, but if so, when and how are we going to know whether Pant or Sanju Samson or Ishan Kishen or someone else is to be the second wicketkeeper in the side? It's quite clear that whoever gets picked as the second wicketkeeper has to be a better batsman than keeper, for his keeping skills alone are unlikely to make him a viable option to play in the XI. In addition, that keeper must also be capable of batting lower down the order, for there isn't a place for another top-order batsman in the squad, let alone in the playing XI.
If India don't pick a full-time keeper in their ODI playing XIs too, they will paint themselves into a corner, where they will need to pick someone as a backup purely on gut feel and not going by his performances.
I would strongly recommend they play a frontline keeper in the ODIs against New Zealand and South Africa, and let Rahul flourish as an opener. Having him keep looks like a magic formula at the moment, but that mustn't allow the selectors to take their eyes off the bigger picture. After all, it is essential to pick at least two wicketkeepers in the squad for the World Cup.