Virat Kohli has said he isn’t “insecure” or “possessive” about where he bats and is willing to drop down the order to accommodate Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, and KL Rahul in the playing XI for the ODIs against Australia. Though the decision has been couched in the context of openers, it’s probably a pragmatic decision considering the lower-middle order.
The question, of course, isn’t whether Kohli is comfortable playing anywhere but where does he fit best in the scheme of things to help India win matches. In the absence of Hardik Pandya, whose hitting and finishing in the end overs provides the team added firepower, it’s indeed better if Kohli drops down to No.4 to anchor the lower middle order — and give it experience and direction.
“There might be a possibility that all three will play,” Kohli said on the eve of the first ODI against Australia in Mumbai. “Yeah, big possibility, very happy to (bat at No. 4). Look, I’m not possessive about where I play, I’m not insecure about where I bat. Being the captain of the team, it is my job to make sure that the next lot is also ready.”
The push down will be a touch harsh on Shreyas Iyer, who has done a pretty good job at No.4 in recent ODIs, but his game won’t be affected by the push to No.5. He is a batsman who can start hitting without soaking up too many balls, and he along with Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant can take care of the final few overs of the innings.
Kohli’s self-demotion has been necessitated by the fretting about openers – how to include Dhawan and Rahul in the XI – but it perhaps plays out as a wise option if one considers the lower order. Kedar Jadhav and Manish Pandey hover in and out of the team – yet again, it’s been harsh on Pandey whose game is probably better suited to ODIs though he has revved himself up impressively in the few T20s he gets. Jadhav’s ability to round-arm a couple of overs probably gets him the nod, but he too needs to step up with a memorable performance or two to continue getting that favour.
Kohli also responded to the speculation around Dhawan vs Rahul. “I don’t support people comparing players within the team. I see so many features and programmes being made on ‘this versus this’ and ‘that versus that’. I mean we are a team and we are playing together… It doesn’t make sense when people say the ‘heat is on’ and ‘they are fighting for one spot’. I think that sends a wrong message and people should stay away from that.”
It makes eminent sense for a captain to talk like that but the framing of the contest between two batsmen isn’t something contrived or invalid. If there is someone as good as Iyer — and with the likes of Shivam Dube, Pandey and even Hardik Pandya returning after getting fit, in the lower order — it isn’t negative to consider whether to go with just one of Dhawan and Rahul.
In fact, if this was a T20 series, never mind the recent couple of innings, India would be best served if they open with Rahul and Sharma. Unlike Dhawan’s T20 record, Rahul has shown intent and aggression from the start in the shortest format. In fact, he has been the batsman India depend on for a good quick start and when he succeeds, there is a lot less pressure on the middle- and lower-middle order.
Which cannot be said about Dhawan as he has tended to drag on a bit, and if he gets out after 10 overs, India still have a lot to do to catch up with the run rate. So, considering this is a T20 World Cup year, Rahul or Dhawan isn’t a bad debate to get in at all at this stage. The latter returned to the Indian team against Sri Lanka and scored 32 and 52. Whereas Rahul has been in supreme touch in his last three innings with his scores reading 91, 45 and 54.
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A braver punt would have been to go with Rahul at the top, drop Dhawan, and give enough games for Iyer and co. to make or break the middle order.
Considering it was the middle order that broke India’s spine in the 50-over World Cup in England, India would do well to strengthen it before the T20 showpiece. It might make sense for India to go with the three regulars at the top in ODIs, but they would have to reflect on what works best in the shortest format.
Kohli, the captain, ticked all the right boxes when he took the onus on himself to help his team-mates. “The vision has to be always on the larger picture and figure out how can you make these guys confident. If at all someone has to take responsibility, it should be me and give the other guys opportunities as well. I’m open to it and I want to see guys stepping up and taking responsibility. That is part and parcel of being a captain. And it is good to see players finding their game, realising their own potential. And when you are a captain, that is the most satisfying thing.”
One can’t ask more from a captain but time has come to focus on the needs of Iyer and others in the lower order. If India slips up, it would come down to that..