World Cup 2019: KL Rahul's century comes at the right time for India
India put up a reassuring performance in their encounter against Bangladesh on the last day of the round of warm-up matches leading to the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, as they triumphed by a handsome margin of 95. India set a challenging target of 360 runs to win for their Asian neighbours Bangladesh - thanks largely to the twin centuries by KL Rahul and Mahendra Singh Dhoni - and bowled them out with three deliveries to spare.
Rahul's ton, which was studded with 12 fours and 4 sixes, could not have come at a better time and seemed to nail home his claim on the number 4 spot in the Indian batting order.
Had Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar not been injured before the first warm-up game, not many would have expected Rahul to have been given a go at the number 4 position since he has seemed more of an afterthought in the ODI XI in the recent times. Both Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar have been automatic fixtures in the team since the beginning of this year.
Rahul has only played 14 ODIs since making his debut three years ago, and all his 50-plus scores, including a century, came while opening the innings. The lone ODI he played this year was an outing against Australia in the month of March, where he batted at the slot in contention with mediocre returns.
This was after a wilderness of five months since his previous ODI, when he had hit a half-century in a low-scoring tie against Afghanistan. The limited opportunities in the middle order came far and in between - three innings in Sri Lanka in August 2017 and two in England in July last year - which he could not capitalize on.
Several candidates, besides Rahul, have been trialed at the fourth slot over the last couple of years. Among the other contenders, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, and Vijay Shankar have made it to the squad of fifteen for England and Wales 2019, thus leaving the question very much open at the time of the team's arrival here.
Four wickets down for a modest score of 102 after the 22nd over, Rahul strung a partnership worth 164 runs with Dhoni to place India in a commanding position. As he effortlessly unleashed his wide range of strokes, he may have reminded the team management of the genius that has always kept him in consideration for selection despite his woes of late. If this inning heralds a much-awaited return to form, it may have solved a headache almost as old as the last World Cup for more reasons than one.
In terms of pure batting ability, Rahul trumps over the others. With Karthik's role more sidelined as a cover for Dhoni in the wicket-keeping role, Rahul scores over Jadhav, despite being more experienced in this format, and Shankar, in his experience of English conditions. He had performed admirably in the shorter version of the limited-overs game and had capped off a horrendous Test series with a counter-attacking century, in last year's tour to this country.
On the other hand, Jadhav's definitive contributions in ODIs have come at the lower middle order, and he has batted in a mere total of three innings in a position above no. 6. Despite a couple of impressive scores in the 40s in pressure situations earlier this year, Vijay Shankar is seen more as a bits-and-pieces player than someone who would walk into the team on merit as a pure batsman.
With the top three positions set in stone, employing Rahul at number 4 opens up India's options in other areas. Dhoni is expected to be the default choice for the three-down position. Between Hardik Pandya, Vijay Shankar, Kedar Jadhav and Ravindra Jadeja for the next two slots, Pandya has to be a certainty. While Shankar, neither a striker as clean as Pandya nor as pacy with the ball, must warm the bench for him, Jadhav loses a point or two for being the weaker of this lot in the fielding department.
However, he remains a wild card with his innocuous tricks with the ball as well as his Bevan-esque calm in finishing chases. For now, however, the odds might be stacked in favor of Jadeja, who displayed his batting skills down the order in both matches, and Jadhav's injury may have cost him a start in the initial XI.
If Rahul can, as he only can right now, provide the dynamism and stability the team is searching for, both he and Dhoni can concentrate on the middle overs, with the knowledge that there would be two pure finishers to follow. This would allow Dhoni to play the role of a senior statesman anchoring the innings without compunction.
It would also give Kohli the luxury to field six players that can be expected to complete their respective quota of 10 overs each. With Hardik Pandya definitely being looked at as the third seamer in the attack, fielding either Jadeja or Jadhav gives India the cushion of an extra spinner, who can share the load of the fifth bowler with Pandya, or any other bowler having a bad day for that matter.
Before India open their campaign on 5th June against South Africa, the real brainstorming might be on getting their bowling combination right. Jasprit Bumrah and Yuzvendra Chahal are certainties to make the XI, one understands. Whether India decide to field two front-line seamers or three would decide the fate of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, and Kuldeep Yadav.
Kohli's penchant for pace and the recent record may help Shami's case as the second seamer. Kuldeep's recent form and the pace at which he bowls have been points of discussion, and if he's included in the first XI, he has to be utilized carefully. His record in ODIs has been enviable and he is most effective when batsmen look to attack him.
If Kuldeep's wickets against Bangladesh yesterday suggest anything, it would make sense to hold a lion's share of his overs back until the latter part of the innings, unleashing him as a wicket-taking option after others have built up the pressure. If conditions so demand, it may make sense to switch him with the third seamer for certain games.
In light of the above, the probable XI for India in this World Cup might look like this:
Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli (c), KL Rahul, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja/Kedar Jadhav, Kuldeep Yadav/Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal.
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