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Problem of plenty: How do India fit Virat Kohli in their T20I XI?

If both Pant and Kohli are to make the XI, India will have to leave out either Hooda or Suryakumar

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
A team that dominated from start to finish, as India did in the first T20I against England, shouldn't have too many headaches, right? Not really.
India will discover a problem of plenty they know they will have to tackle sooner than later with the T20 World Cup looming. How do they handle Virat Kohli's form issues? Where do they slot in Rishabh Pant? What about the allrounders' conundrum? Let's look at each case.
How do India fit in Kohli?
Before we answer that, let's look at what the incumbents have done.
Deepak Hooda is just six T20Is old but has already shown he can adapt to the team's new 'high risk, high returns' policy. In four innings, he has made 205 runs at a strike rate of 172.26. He's had a breakthrough IPL for Lucknow Supergiants, scoring 451 runs in 14 innings - mostly at No. 3 or 4 - at a strike rate of 136.66. He can also bowl some handy offspin if needed.
In the T20I series opener against England, Hooda made an impressive 17-ball 33 at No. 3, building on Rohit Sharma's pulsating start. He walked in at 29 for 1 in the third over and walked out with the score 89 for 3 in the ninth. Job done.
Let's look at Suryakumar Yadav - the 360-degree batter, who has time and again demonstrated his capabilities of playing different roles - enforcer, finisher, accumulator, you name it. Suryakumar made his debut under Kohli in March 2021 against England. Across 15 T20I innings that have brought him 405 runs, he strikes at 170.
Suryakumar's unique ability to go big from ball one makes him stand out among the rest. He loves pace on the ball. Against spin, his strike rate of 140.22 in 43 T20s (including IPL and India) is the fourth-best strike rate since 2020. His average of 39.43 is higher than the three Indians above him on the list - Prithvi Shaw, Sanju Samson and Nitish Rana.
Like Hooda, Suryakumar made a big impression in the first T20I in Southampton. He made 39 off 19 balls, without giving you the impression that he was slogging. That is because he wasn't. His late movements without giving the bowlers an inkling of the region he's eyeing, subtle wrists to either ramp or scoop, and ability to play the pull or hook make him a destructive batter.
This brings us to Kohli. Should he walk back in - which he should - he could open in a stopgap arrangement, given KL Rahul, the first-choice opener, is still injured. This could then displace Ishan Kishan, but it will go against Rahul Dravid's policy of giving players role clarity and backing them in those roles through an extended run of matches. Having identified Kishan as back-up, slotting Kohli there for the moment is only likely to throw up more headaches. The most likely slot then is three.
His record in all T20s since the start of the year reads 18 innings, 410 runs, strike rate of 117.81, and an average of 24.11. Sixteen of these came for Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL 2022, where he opened the batting for much of it. His powerplay strike rate in the IPL was 116.78.
His struggle to force the pace on slower surfaces was evident. It's an aspect that has been troublesome for Kohli for a while. Since 2020 (IPL and T20Is), Kohli's strike rate of 105.23 (51 innings) is the lowest among those who have played more than 20 innings. His overall batting impact per game since IPL 2020, as per ESPNcricinfo smart stats, is 20.29, the second-lowest among all batters with 750 runs. Only Kane Williamson fares worse.
So, whichever way India choose to slot Kohli in, it's clear he will have to rediscover the kind of touch he brought to the table in 2016, form of the kind he showed against Australia in a virtual T20 World Cup quarterfinal where he made a 51-ball 82 not out in a winning chase or the IPL that followed, where he made a chart-topping 973 runs, including four hundreds in the season.
What about Pant and Shreyas Iyer?
One of the theories fast gaining ground is India could try and punt on Pant the opener. He has only so far done it in one ODI at home, against West Indies, earlier in the year. If he does open with Rohit, the axe could yet again, unfortunately, fall on Kishan for now, but it could give India the option to play both Suryakumar and Hooda alongside Kohli in the middle order. The person to sit out then could be Dinesh Karthik, who has been brought back after three years because he plays a specific role of a finisher. If Karthik continues, once again it means one of Hooda or Suryakumar make way. So, either way, to fit in both Pant and Kohli in the same XI, India will have to choose between leaving out one of their in-form batters.
There is also Shreyas Iyer in the mix. Iyer batted at No.3 in the third T20I against West Indies and also against Sri Lanka and South Africa at home this year. Since the start of 2022, he has scored a total of 323 runs at a strike rate of 154.54 in nine T20Is. And despite formidable numbers, he isn't guaranteed a spot.
Does Jadeja slot back in straightaway?
Logically, yes. It's a straight swap with Axar Patel. While Ravindra Jadeja's batting credentials have been on an upswing, his bowling in T20 cricket has tailed off over the past two years. Since IPL 2020, he has struck 575 runs at 147. In the same period, his death-overs strike rate of 199.60 is the fourth-best. With the ball, he has picked just 24 wickets in 40 games at an economy of 7.70. However, Hardik Pandya's encouraging returns with the ball could give Jadeja a bit of leeway, as the sixth bowling option, giving India flexibility they dearly missed at last year's World Cup.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo