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Can Ishan Kishan be the maverick that India need at the top?

India's safety-first batting approach has cost them in the recent past, but the 23-year-old promises more aggression

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
He's back. Ishan Kishan unfurls the big hits once again, Rajasthan Royals vs Mumbai Indians, IPL 2021, Sharjah, October 5, 2021

Ishan Kishan has the reputation of being a big-hitter in the IPL and for India A  •  BCCI

And so, the Indian cricket caravan rolls. From one bubble to another. As you would expect in these times, every team needs Covid contingencies in place. India will hope to have not just back-up plans but possibly a new batting template to ODIs, especially with the 2023 World Cup approaching.
With Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan all but automatic picks in a fully-fit XI for now - they're fourth among all-time opening pairs in terms of runs and second in terms of century partnerships - it's a great opportunity to build a back-up opening pool and give them three straight games.
Ideally, Dhawan's absence due to Covid, and KL Rahul's to family commitments, for the series opener against West Indies on Sunday in Ahmedabad, should've been a deserving opportunity for Ruturaj Gaikwad. The 25-year-old has been in prolific form across formats. Since starring in a title-winning IPL run with Chennai Super Kings, he's racked up 603 runs, including four hundreds, at the Vijay Hazare Trophy in November-December last year.
Like Dhawan, Gaikwad too will have to miss out after testing positive for Covid-19. And so, it's time to spin the roulette. The selectors have drafted in Ishan Kishan and Mayank Agarwal into the squad as replacements; one of them is likely to open with Rohit in the first ODI in Ahmedabad on Sunday.
Is this a big deal at all, you may wonder. Perhaps not. But it could be the spot that gives India options, considering Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant and Rahul, who has had most success in ODIs in the middle order, are definite shoo-ins. For the better part of the decade, the daredevilry that once was at the top of the order has given way to a more safety-first approach, where setting a platform has been prioritised - both while batting first and in chases.
In recent years, this approach has come with the knowledge of having Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja as designated finishers. For the moment, both players are missing. Jadeja is recovering from a knee injury, and Hardik hasn't yet been pressed into service because he isn't fully ready to bowl yet. With Shreyas Iyer also absent due to Covid, India's lower-middle order, at least for the series opener, could comprise, Suryakumar Yadav, a debutant in Deepak Hooda, Shardul Thakur, and the bowlers. This, of course, doesn't influence who opens with Rohit.
Let's first look at Agarwal, who will soon turn 31. He has featured in five ODIs, across two stints, scoring 86 runs, including a highest of 32. Agarwal has spent a better part of the last 12 months in various bubbles, having played five Tests (two at home against New Zealand, three away in South Africa). At the IPL, he's gotten off the blocks faster than Rahul. He's been so prolific that Punjab Kings have retained him ahead of the IPL auction. Agarwal started off as a white-ball dasher before he traded some of the flamboyance for the hard grind to cut it in red-ball cricket.
Then there's Kishan, who is eight years younger than Agarwal and has a penchant to go after the bowling from get-go. He is fearless, loves to take the attack to the bowlers, even if it may have at times earned the wrath of Mahela Jayawardene, who coached him at Mumbai Indians. At other times, this very trait has been a matter of celebration.
India's method of building an ODI innings had been set in stone for so long that when Kishan suddenly came along and jumped out of the crease to wallop the first ball he faced in ODI cricket in Sri Lanka for a six, and then rocked back to crash his second through extra cover for four, many were pleasantly surprised. Without digging deep into stats and data, for the moment, it's not hard to infer the take-it-easy way isn't Kishan's - not in red-ball cricket, definitely not in the shorter formats.
It was nearly a year ago that he made his T20I debut in Ahmedabad, and flicked Jofra Archer off his pads for four off his first ball, and then whacked Ben Stokes into the stands over deep square leg. Against spin, he was particularly merciless against Adil Rashid. His dominating presence at the crease takes pressure off the other batter.
He's done this at the IPL over the years, batting at different positions, and not necessarily as an opener. The genesis of his game is simple: it's one without half-measures, different to Dhawan or Rohit's motto of gathering steam. Kishan is a rocket launcher, both against pace and spin. Against them, he strikes at 92 in List-A cricket and 133 in T20s. While these aren't a guarantee for success, at least the approach is worth a shot.
India's batters have been vocal about their own approaches, often pointing to how the old method has brought them success. Sure, the slow-build-finish-strong approach has delivered success for India in plenty of bilateral series, but teams are remembered by performances in global tournaments, which India haven't won since the 2013 Champions Trophy.
This approach could also leave a team susceptible in a chase, like it did for India in the 2019 World Cup game against England, where they managed just 28 runs the first 10 overs, apart from playing out 42 dots, in pursuit of 338. And so when a dasher, who is looking to break the mould one way or the other comes along, having scored heaps of runs against world-class bowlers in the IPL and for India A, it remains to be seen if the team management is tempted to give him a run. Rahul Dravid, the coach, has seen plenty of Kishan, as he has of Pant, Washington Sundar and many others. Will he take a punt now on Kishan?
There will, of course, be a question of how they should balance the XI when Rahul returns. In any case, Rahul's recent success at No. 5 points to his ability to switch seamlessly, so this could also be a chance at sealing that position with the World Cup in mind.
The IPL is often hailed for that standout line "where talent meets opportunity." And the slew of illnesses, as unfortunate as they are, have given India a chance to promote that punch line in this series.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo