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Can Suryakumar crack ODIs ahead of the home World Cup?

Despite the batter's T20I form, fitting in India's middle order will be a challenge for him

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
Suryakumar Yadav's exploits in T20I cricket have left fans with an obvious question: can he crack other formats too in the same manner? After his blazing century against Sri Lanka in the third T20I, Gautam Gambhir even tweeted that it was "time to put him in Test cricket". Tests and T20Is are the two extremes of the sport. So, for now at least, let's meet in the middle: the ODIs.
While Suryakumar's T20I form does merit a long run in 50-over cricket, this is a World Cup year, and India already have more middle-order contenders than slots available. Among those who have played at least five innings from Nos. 4 to 6 in the last two years, almost everyone has performed well. Suryakumar, in fact, has underwhelming numbers.
Suryakumar had a great start to his ODI career; after eight matches, he was averaging 53.40 with a strike rate of 103.08. In the next eight, though, he was dismissed in single digits four times, and under 20 on two more occasions.
In the above table, he and Shreyas Iyer are also the only ones without a secondary skill. Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul and Sanju Samson all provide a wicketkeeping option if Ishan Kishan fails to cement his place. However, if Suryakumar can replicate his T20I form, the upside would be great. He could be a game-changer in ODIs as well.
At first look, Suryakumar's domestic List A numbers aren't that impressive: 2854 runs at an average of 36.58, albeit striking at 104.19. But in the last four years, he has 1647 runs at an average of 45.75 and a strike rate of 122.
Having said that, there isn't much time left for experimentation - the World Cup is just nine months away. Ideally, India should give him a run of at least six ODIs - three against Sri Lanka and then three against New Zealand. That could mean one of Rahul or Shreyas sits out. But Rohit Sharma, the India captain, has indicated a different approach.
"The problem happens when we start comparing different formats," Rohit said on the eve of the first ODI against Sri Lanka. "We have to look who all have done well in ODI cricket for us. What situation they have done well in - they have been under pressure, and they have gone in, batted and scored runs. All those things you need to take into account before making that call.
"I do understand the form as well. Form is important but the format is also important. The 50-over format is a different format, slightly longer than the T20 format, and the guys who have performed in ODIs will definitely get a run. We are very clear in what we want to do."
So it looks like it's all on Suryakumar to convince the team he's ready for ODIs and their unique challenges, the biggest of which will be if he can bat with the same mindset here too.
Coming in at 50 for 2 after ten overs, or 75 for 3 after 15, in an ODI is not the same as coming in at 50 for 2 after six overs in a T20I. There he has the freedom to attack from the first ball, as there is less premium on wickets, but can he bat in the same manner in ODIs too?
England have shown that it can be done, but they have built their whole team around that philosophy. India, and other teams, may catch up with them in the future but are not there yet.
The other hurdles are more or less inherent in the format. With a bowler allowed ten overs as opposed to four, captains can bring their best bowler on as soon as Suryakumar walks in. They can even set attacking fields for longer durations, for a couple of overs are not generally going to have that big an impact on the final result.
If the opposition does that, it will reduce the margin of error. An outside edge that is likely to fetch him a single to deep third in T20Is will be gobbled up at first slip, and that's exactly what happened in New Zealand last year.
In the first ODI, he came out to bat in the 33rd over, and Kane Williamson put a slip straightway. Suryakumar hit the first ball he faced, from Lockie Ferguson, for four but two balls later was caught at slip. His dismissal in the third ODI was almost a replica. While it is a small sample size, that's one thing he needs to be wary of in 50-over cricket.
Another challenge, more for the team management than for Suryakumar, is to figure out what position suits him the best.
Is he better coming in at No. 4, a spot he has had success in T20Is? If he bats at No. 4, he can also exploit the field restrictions in the middle overs, when only four fielders are permitted outside the 30-yard circle.
Or should he walk in at No. 5 or 6 with, say, 15 or fewer overs left in the game? At that stage, he will be expected to play his shots, not build the innings. So that freedom will be there. The opposition is also less likely to have attacking fields, especially in the last ten overs when they are allowed five fielders outside the circle. Suryakumar can then treat it as a T20I.
Ticking all these boxes may not be easy, but if someone knows nothing comes easy, it's Suryakumar.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo