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News Analysis

Rahul vs Kishan: Who will India's first-choice keeper be?

Also: how did Suryakumar make it to the ODI World Cup squad?

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
On Tuesday, India announced their 15-member World Cup squad that was largely on similar lines as the one they picked for the ongoing Asia Cup. The composition did, however, elicit a few talking points.

Kishan v Rahul: Who will win the race?

It's a massive show of confidence from the selectors and team management to pick KL Rahul despite him having not played a competitive game since May. But this faith perhaps stems from knowing India have possibly four - if they make the final - Asia Cup games followed three ODIs against Australia to give him a decent run of games to test his readiness.
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As such, teams have a provision to change their squad without ICC's clearance until September 28, by when the ODIs against Australia would've ended.
Rahul's utility as a wicketkeeper-batter in the middle order first took shape in January 2020 after Rishabh Pant was concussed. Rahul responded with a 52-ball 80 at No. 5 in India's series-levelling win over Australia in Rajkot. After that series, Kohli was unequivocal in his support for Rahul and the need to give him more opportunities, both with the gloves and in the middle order before being judged.
Kohli is no longer India's captain, but Rahul continues to enjoy that support even from the current team management. Since January 2020, in 17 innings at No. 5, Rahul averages 56.53 and strikes at 99.45 with seven half-centuries and a hundred. However, the road back to No. 5 may not be straightforward.
Chief selector Ajit Agarkar, too, didn't quite reveal who the first-choice wicketkeeper will be. That's because Ishan Kishan, the incumbent, has enhanced his credentials in recent times. Kishan not only brings in the left-handed element India's top order currently lacks, especially with Tilak Varma out, but he has also shown versatility in batting anywhere as the team requires him to.
Opening the batting, he struck the fastest ODI double-ton in Bangladesh in December last year. More recently, he's on a run of four consecutive half-centuries (three in the West Indies and one in the Asia Cup opener against Pakistan). The innings against Pakistan was particularly impressive as it was a rearguard effort under pressure at No. 5, a position he'd never batted in earlier. His 81-ball 82 in a century stand with Hardik Pandya lifted India from the depths of 66 for 4 against one of the world's best limited-overs attacks currently.
"It's a good headache to have," Agarkar said on Tuesday after announcing India's World Cup squad. "Ishan played a lovely innings [against Pakistan]. He generally opens but you'd rather have that headache [over who the first-choice wicketkeeper will be] to deal with than not have it. When he comes [KL Rahul] there will be a conversation, but at least you have two options. The captain-coach will sit down and decide what's best for the team on a given day. We're happy to have two options who will fight for a place in the team than the other way round."

Suryakumar pips Tilak

With Shreyas Iyer set to get enough game time at No. 4, India could've opted for one of Kishan or Rahul to also double up as the reserve batter too. This would've freed up a slot to pick a genuine offspinner, which Agarkar acknowledged can make a difference, or maybe even an extra seamer, like Prasidh Krishna.
However, the selectors have opted for some batting insurance by picking Suryakumar Yadav - more on experience than recent form. As such, Suryakumar's ODI numbers are middling. It's something he himself touched upon as "not good enough" recently. Suryakumar has been part of India's ODI set-up for over a year now, and averages in the mid-20s across 24 innings. In comparison, Tilak, who is part of the Asia Cup squad, is uncapped in the format and is only a handful of games old in international cricket.

Can Axar and Jadeja feature in the same XI?

Axar Patel made his debut in 2014 and has played 52 ODIs till date. Out of these, only eight have featured both him and Ravindra Jadeja in the same XI. This is largely down to both being left-arm spinning allrounders who are seen as competitors for one spot in the XI.
At this World Cup, there's little doubt that Jadeja is an automatic shoo-in as the spin-bowling allrounder, potentially at No. 7. But because India want batting depth beyond No. 7 - a point Rohit seemed to stress on - there's a realistic possibility of India having Jadeja atNo.7 and one of Axar or Shardul Thakur at No.8 based on conditions, in addition to Kuldeep Yadav as the frontline wristspinner.
"It's both, we've looked at bowling and batting depth," Rohit explained when asked of balancing their XI. "We need to create [batting] depth. That's what we found was lacking in the team for the last few years. We wanted to make sure we get the batting depth somehow. When you talk of depth, No. 8 and No. 9 becomes crucial.
"We saw in the first game here at the Asia Cup also, where we were a little short [India finished with 266 despite looking good for more] with the bat in the back end. It tells you how important your 8-9-10-11 are, their job is not just to come and bowl but also contribute with the bat. We ended getting 265 [266]; another 10-15 runs had we played the entire 50 overs [India were bowled out in 48.5] could've been the difference between a winning and losing margin.
"We've spoken to the boys how important their role is going to be, how they need to put their hands up to do a job with the bat as well. We understand the importance of getting the combinations right. Sometimes when you're trying to fix something you will miss out on something that's not broken as well. We just have to try and use resources available as best as I can."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo