Match Analysis

India lose series but gain KL Rahul, a long-term fix at No. 5

With Shreyas Iyer a nailed-on No. 4, the team might have finally found the right men for the right spots

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
The ball flew to the boundary, and all it took was a roll of the wrists.
Martin Guptill is a master of making batting look absurdly simple. On occasion, he doesn't even look up after hitting his shot.
There really is nothing cooler than opening the batting in modern-day limited-overs cricket. You have pace on the ball. There are only two fielders on the boundary when you start your innings. And, you don't really face that much movement, either in the air or off the pitch.
It seems - actually, it is - opportunistic but Guptill, who got to a fifty with a strike rate of 172 facing only India's quicks, fell to his ninth delivery of spin. Yuzvendra Chahal bowled him with a legbreak that had been bewitched.
But the fact remains that once pace is taken off, the game changes. The ball doesn't ping off the bat. Worse, it starts to grip and move sideways.
So imagine being a specialist opener. Imagine having all the shots. The scoops. The ramps. The inside-out drive. The reverse sweep. And then being told the only way you can get in the XI is by remaking yourself into a middle-order batsman.
For a measure of how hard that is, in all the history of ODI cricket, only 15 players, having originally looked like they would be specialists in the top order (min 20 innings), became good enough to last 15 or more innings at No. 5 and lower.
In other words, to meet the changes you'll face - no pace on the ball and limited opportunities for quick runs - and overcome them to score big and score freely, you have to be as good as, oh I dunno, AB de Villiers.
KL Rahul is definitely not there yet. It is hard to imagine anyone can get there, actually. But it should present a measure of how hard he has to work. At least, the early signs are positive. The 27-year-old made his first century in this new role in a match where the top three contributed less than 20% of their total (296).
There was a calmness to his entire knock. It began in the 13th over and continued all the way through to the 47th and never once did he look in danger of stagnating. Part of that is because of pure ability. Rahul is one of the few Indian batsmen who has a 360-degree game. Look through his knock in Mount Maunganui. You'll see that he gets off the mark with a punch through point every bit as classy as Kane Williamson's. Then a crisp on-drive reminiscent of Virat Kohli. A sweep shot that contained no premeditation. A fully upright scoop for six against the 6'8" Kyle Jamieson, who had no trouble hitting the splice of the other batsmen.
India have seen his talent blossom for years now. He emerged as a player very much in the orthodox mold, who once expressed frustration that he got tired around the 120-mark in first-class cricket. It didn't take long for him to fix that and start scoring triple hundreds.
T20 cricket was next. Having been a bit-part player primarily because he didn't have a power game he rose to claim the fastest fifty in the IPL. And that tournament's been around for 12 years.
Rahul, quite apart from how good he looks at the crease, has shown something far more special throughout his still-young career: the ability to rise to a challenge. Again and again and again. That is why Kohli and his team management believes he is their best man for the No. 5 spot.
Other teams have attempted this. New Zealand, for example, found a gem in Tom Latham because of his skill in tackling spin bowling. But he is an outlier. Over the last five years, only he, Moeen Ali and Sikandar Raza have been tried as potential openers (20 innings) first before settling into a permanent role in the middle-order (ten or more innings at No. 5 or lower).
Compare that with success stories of middle-order batsmen who went on to become very good openers. Rohit Sharma. Virender Sehwag. Shane Watson. More recently, Marcus Stoinis became the BBL's leading run-getter after jumping up the order. Jos Buttler is set to be trialled up there by England. The transition from bottom to top is a lot more common because it is relatively easier in limited-overs crcicket.
India's middle-order has been a problem for a little while. It may well have cost them a World Cup. But now, away from the glare of a 50-over ICC event, they have the freedom to invest in players even if it comes at the cost of losing a few matches and that has helped in the discovery of talent which could be around for a long time.
Shreyas Iyer looks a nailed-on No. 4. He has crossed fifty in each of his last three ODI innings and turned one of them into three-figures as well. Hardik Pandya should walk back into this team when he gets fit. Rishabh Pant's story has to have a few more chapters in it. There will be dismay among the fans that India have been whitewashed, but there have been gains. There have been significant gains.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo