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Where will KL Rahul bat, and what about the Kuldeep-Chahal dilemma?

India are faced with a number of tricky questions going into the ODI series

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
KL Rahul goes through the leg side  •  BCCI

KL Rahul goes through the leg side  •  BCCI

For over two months, Virat Kohli and Aaron Finch were team-mates at Royal Challengers Bangalore, putting their heads together to plot against the likes of Steven Smith and KL Rahul among others. Come Friday, everything jumbles up again as India's Australian summer kicks off with the first of three ODIs in Sydney. As always, India have to address a few combination questions going into the series, which we examine here.
Where does Rahul bat?
Rishabh Pant isn't in the limited-overs squads, and Rahul, who has also been named vice-captain, is currently the first-choice white-ball wicketkeeper. It's a responsibility he first took up in January when Australia visited India, after Pant suffered a concussion in the first ODI in Mumbai. In his very first outing as a keeper batting at No. 5, in Rajkot, Rahul plundered a 52-ball 80 to put the finishing touches on India's imposing total of 340. He continued that form in New Zealand, scoring 88 off 64 in Hamilton and 112 off 113 in Mount Maunganui.
At the time, Kohli felt Rahul deserved a longer run with the gloves before he was judged, and having endured his fair share of being moved up and down the batting order, and being in and out of the team, it was only fair he was given the extra opportunities in his new role. It's no secret that Rahul loves batting at the top of the order, and in Australia, India have a vacancy created by Rohit Sharma's unavailability. Given all that is on his plate, do India push Rahul up into his preferred batting position alongside Shikhar Dhawan, or resist the move, as tempting as it may be?
Agarwal v Gill
If India decide to not open with Rahul, they will need to find a partner for the in-form Dhawan. Prithvi Shaw, who opened in New Zealand, has been left out of the ODI squad. The race is between another incumbent in Mayank Agarwal and Shubman Gill, who has been part of most India tours as a reserve since his debut in New Zealand in January 2019.
Agarwal, now a Test regular, made a best of 32 in three innings in New Zealand, but that was over nine months ago. He's since had one of his best IPL seasons, being the fire to Rahul's ice at the top of the order for Kings XI Punjab. While the team didn't make the playoffs, Agarwal made 424 runs in 11 innings at a strike rate of 156.45, including his maiden IPL century. His tally was second-best for the franchise, behind Rahul's chart-topping 670 runs.
Gill scored 440 in 14 innings, but was a lot mellower in his approach, his runs coming at a strike rate of 117.96. He hasn't managed to add to his two India caps on the New Zealand tour of 2019, and it remains to be seen if India are willing to give either him or Agarwal a long run as back-up opener keeping in mind the 2023 World Cup. If one of them plays, with Rahul batting in the middle order, Manish Pandey and Sanju Samson might have to wait their turn.
Pandya's role
Ever since he injured his back at the Asia Cup in September 2018, Hardik Pandya's workload and rehab have needed constant monitoring. While he is eager to bowl, the nature of his back condition, which required surgery in the UK last year, meant he played as a specialist batsman for the Mumbai Indians in their victorious IPL campaign.
Pandya was a key figure for Mumbai, batting mostly in the slog overs and smacking 281 runs at a strike rate of 178.98 - the third-highest of any batsman in the tournament - including an unbeaten 21-ball 60 against the Rajasthan Royals.
With Mumbai, Pandya is able to hit with a great degree of freedom in the knowledge that he still has batting behind him in the form of Kieron Pollard and his brother Krunal Pandya. Here, he will in all probability have for company Ravindra Jadeja, who showed exceptional hitting form for the Chennai Super Kings, scoring 232 runs at 171.85. Given Pandya probably won't bowl, India are likely to use him in the top six - how will he adapt to that role, and will he be able to play with the same freedom he bats with in the IPL?
Kuldeep vs Chahal or Kuldeep-Chahal?
Jadeja's lower-order batting is key for multiple reasons. None of the top six in the current line-up can bowl. So if he plays, it could leave India with just one spot for another frontline spinner.
For the better part of two years after the 2017 Champions Trophy, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal were key to Kohli's bowling plans in ODIs. Things have changed quite a bit lately, though. Kuldeep is no longer the first-choice spinner at the Kolkata Knight Riders, for whom he featured in just a handful of matches this season. He featured in just one of three ODIs on the tour of New Zealand.
On current form, Chahal, who picked up 21 wickets, the most for the Royal Challengers in IPL 2020, is the frontrunner to be the lone specialist spinner should they pick just one. It remains to be seen if the team management keeps faith in Kuldeep and gives him a run given Australia's large outfields and bouncy surfaces, which he thrives on.
What about the pace attack?
India have spoken of the need to rotate their fast bowlers. The two whose workloads will be most closely monitored are Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, key members of the Test squad. Both bowlers could be pulled out of the T20Is or rotated to give them the best chance to play the red-ball warm-up fixtures that coincide with that series. The same could be the case with Navdeep Saini, who is also part of all three squads.
The other pace option in the ODI squad is Shardul Thakur, while the T20I squad also includes Deepak Chahar and T Natarajan. It will be interesting to see how India juggle the workloads of Bumrah, Shami and Saini - especially given the low likelihood of Pandya bowling - and how the other white-ball options perform on Australian pitches.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo