For long, KL Rahul has presented a puzzling case in ODI cricket. He made his debut in 2016 when he became the first Indian to score a hundred on ODI debut. That’s a rollicking start, right? But to date, in late 2022, the 30-year-old has played only 46 games in the format.
This is a stat you will mostly associate with a fringe player. But Rahul has been more than that, at least since the preceding 50-over World Cup. However, India never really figured out the optimal use of Rahul in ODIs.
Naturally, he is an opener - a spot mostly unavailable - due to the presence of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma. At three, he has played only three innings as yet, a direct result of an ODI GOAT in Virat Kohli taking that slot. After a number of ups and downs, post the 2019 World Cup, India finally found out how to slot Rahul in with their incumbent top three intact - hand him in the gloves and bat him at number five. In a handful of opportunities, the Karnataka batter has nailed that role to the T.
Except that was nearly two years ago. After England’s tour of India in early 2021, 50-over cricket took a back seat in light of the forthcoming editions of the T20 World Cup. And with that, Rahul’s growth as an ODI player stagnated.
Two years is a long time to hold on to your spot, especially when you are playing all three formats in this tumultuous environment of modern-day cricket, where the world can change in a snap of the fingers. And Rahul didn’t help his case either. He has constantly been missing from the middle order owing to rest, injuries or opening the innings in the absence of Rohit.
Rahul opened in five of the six innings he played in ODIs this year before the three-match series in Bangladesh. Hence, when the focus shifted back to 50-overs cricket with an eye on the World Cup next year, there were pertinent questions about Rahul’s position as the wicketkeeper batter at number five. There are three others vying for that spot - Rishabh Pant, who has done fairly well in a similar role alongside Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson, both of whom are behind in the queue but are still part of the race. On top of it, Rahul’s own form has seen various ups and downs in the meantime.
Therefore, despite cementing his place by January 2021, the right-hander had a point to prove heading into this series and earn his spot back. And despite a disappointing 1-wicket loss in the first ODI, Rahul’s crafty 73 runs off 70 balls comes as a big relief for the Men in Blue.
Firstly, a major aspect of their ODI setup that they established a while back remains in place. It is significant since Dhawan and Rohit have provided only mixed returns in white-ball cricket of late.
Secondly, and more importantly, the resilient nature of Rahul’s innings. On a slow pitch, where everyone else struggled, the right-hander was the only one to negate the threat of Bangla spinners efficiently.
Rahul batted at a strike rate of 121.4 against spin. No one else, in the whole game, scored at 80 or above. Shakib Al Hasan picked 5/36, and Rahul churned out 19 runs off 18 balls against the left-arm spinner.
Overall, in a game where the average run rate was only 4.3, Rahul scored at a strike rate of 104.3. That with the added responsibility of shepherding the tail after he saw a cluster of his batting partners fall at the other end.
"It was just one of those days where out of everybody else, I looked like I was timing the ball better, and the shots that I picked, fortunately for me, went to the boundary, or every option that I took went my way. Something that I've been working on even in the last couple of sessions that we've been here in Bangladesh,” said Rahul after the match.
It is a marked improvement from the first time Rahul was tried in a non-opening role in India’s ODI setup. Recall India’s 2017 tour of Sri Lanka. The Men in Blue were hunting for a number four post the Champions Trophy. Rahul was the first to audition but averaged only 9.3 in three one-dayers. He was out to spin on all three occasions, and the management was quick to dump him.
Between his debut and when India were knocked out of the 2019 World Cup, Rahul averaged 17.5 in the middle order (number four to six) across six innings. Since then, he averages 67.6 in 12 innings at number four and five. His game against spin during this period is the key - 63.3 average, 107.2 strike rate.
Considering the waning powers of Rohit and Dhawan, Rahul will always be a contender to go back to opening in case India take the call of parting ways with one of the incumbent openers (mostly Dhawan). However, at present, India have plenty of holes to plug with a handful of game time at their hands - nearly 20 ODIs before the World Cup. The management will do better to pen down Rahul’s name at number five (irrespective of the gloveman's duties) with indelible ink and reduce one of their headaches.