News Analysis

Has KL Rahul solved India's middle-order muddle?

India have been trying to squeeze three openers into their side, but KL Rahul showed he has another side to his game

When trying to finalise the best batting line-up in the ongoing series, India were wondering how to squeeze three openers in the XI and also fix a fragile-looking middle order with decent options but nobody really outshining the other. What do you do then? Simple, move an opener to the middle order.
The team management's intention to move KL Rahul to No. 4 or 5 may not originally have been to solve the middle-order issues but the way the in-form batsman went about his innings on Friday, it has given them an option of playing him there for some more time and killing two birds with one stone. India can now easily continue to open with Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, have Virat Kohli at his original No. 3 spot, bat Shreyas Iyer and Rahul interchangeably at Nos. 4 and 5 depending on the situation, and Rishabh Pant at 6.
With a quickfire innings laden with classic and innovative strokes for 80 runs off just 52 balls, Rahul first became Kohli's stable ally for nearly 11 overs and then went on to play the finisher's role to ensure India put on a challenging 340. After Kohli's one-game experiment of batting at No. 4 by playing the three openers in the top order in Mumbai, the captain returned to his original position in Rajkot and Rahul came out to bat at a tricky score of 198 for 3 in the 33rd over. The issue then was not the scoring rate but how India would get to a strong total by avoiding the kind of middle-order collapse - 4 for 30 - they suffered in the first ODI.
After dot-ball pressure got the better of Iyer, Rahul started with one of his trademark drives against Mitchell Starc and barely let his strike rate dip below 100 from there, mixing his innings with the odd boundary and plenty of singles. One of his best shots, that also shot up his strike rate, was against Ashton Agar - a classical straight six that rammed into the sightscreen. In order to become this steady hand in the middle order, Rahul said he didn't change his technique but watched a lot of videos of world-class batsmen.
"I just spoke a lot more to middle-order batsmen and watched a lot of videos," Rahul said. "I spoke a lot to Virat and watched a lot of videos of AB [de Villiers] or Steve Smith and how they build their innings. Kane Williamson is somebody I've tried to go back and watch some of his videos and see how they build their innings and how they play in certain situations. The only thing I'm trying to learn is how I can use my game and be better at a certain situation. Reading of the game has got a lot better for me now that I've played in different positions and batting becomes a lot more enjoyable."
Despite being 1-0 down in a short series, India could take the risk of batting an opener out of his position because of the kind of form he is in. Since the beginning of November, Rahul has batted 13 times in ODIs and T20Is to score 650 runs at a strike rate of 116.27, including a one-day hundred against West Indies and six other half-centuries at an average of 54.16. Rahul had batted eight other times at No. 4 or lower in one-dayers previously, including domestic List A matches, but never scored a fifty in them.
"It's a great challenge [in the middle order] and the last couple of months have been good, I have been in decent form and pretty confident about my skill," he said. "So coming up to every game and having a new responsibility and a new role is also a blessing. I don't think a lot of batsmen get that so that is how I look at this and I am enjoying my batting.
"I have always opened the batting so that's the position I am most comfortable in and I know how to build my innings. But I get to learn so much about my own self and about my batting and batting as an art when I get to bat at No. 3 or 4 or 5, and I am kind of enjoying it and finding new ways to counter bowlers, new ways to handle situation. I don't look at it as pressure, it's something like an opportunity and I will try to play it the best I can."
When Kohli fell for 78 at the score of 276 at the start of the 44th over, Rahul, at 42 off 32, then seamlessly switched his role to that of a finisher even though Manish Pandey fell quickly at the other end. Rahul took on an off-colour Starc by following a four with a magnificent inside-out drive over the covers. It was the 46th over and Rahul showed that just like Kohli and Sharma, he could rely on technically-correct shots and not slogs to collect boundaries in the death overs. Rahul gave similar treatment to Pat Cummins in the penultimate over - a six and a four - taking the two menacing fast bowlers for a collective 41 runs off 22 balls.
By the time he got out, Rahul had become the first India batsman at No. 5 or lower to score a fifty at a strike rate of over 150 when batting first since November 2013. Now in Rahul, India have a solid option for No. 4 if Kohli gets out early, or let him play second-fiddle to Kohli when the need arises, and even polish off the innings with lusty blows like he did on Friday at No. 5.
Not to forget he can keep wicket well, skills he exhibited with the quick stumping of Aaron Finch off Ravindra Jadeja, which can also make him India's back-up keeper for Pant when India tour overseas for limited-overs matches, such as the T20 World Cup later this year. Just don't compare him with the other Rahul from Karnataka who also once kept wicket for India, because it makes this Rahul awkward in press conferences.

Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo