There’s no cloud of uncertainty over Rohit Sharma’s future opening partner in T20Is. After auditioning, trialling and sifting through a posse of frighteningly-talented and explosive opening batsmen over the last few months, skipper Virat Kohli decided it’s time to step up and designated himself as Sharma’s best ally in shredding the new ball and furnishing the Powerplay impetus to the team.
The contenders to pair up with Sharma didn’t fare too badly. The four failures against England aside, KL Rahul has been consistent in this format (average of 39.92 at a strike rate of 142). Ishan Kishan, in his only outing as an opener in this format, struck a bristling half-century himself. The battle-hardened Shikhar Dhawan got just one game in this series, and the other candidates in the queue – Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill – no less talented themselves, have not yet been tried in this format.
But it was not their struggles that prompted Kohli to open and assert that he would continue to do so, but rather the emphatic emergence of India’s middle order. Suryakumar Yadav has strolled onto the international stage as if he had been there for ages. Shreyas Iyer continues to blossom into a fine middle-overs destroyer, Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya lit up with their fireworks at the death. Add Ravindra Jadeja into the mix, and the batting line-up exudes destructibility in the T20 sense of the word.
In the bulging strength of the middle order, Kohli saw a glittering opportunity. Sort of killing two birds (potentially more) with one stone. His self-promotion could furnish the team with better balance while opening presents him with a larger canvas to influence a match. Depending on the opponent and conditions, he could squeeze an extra batsman or bowler without compromising unduly the team’s balance or cohesion.
Besides, it presents opposition new-ball bowlers with the daunting prospect of bowling at two generational talents at the same time. The chaos they could collectively unleash is mind-numbing. Their mere presence could shatter bowlers psychologically. “If we have a partnership and we both are set, then you know that one of us is going to cause some serious damage. That’s exactly what we want. And the other guys feel much more confident when one of us is still in and set, they know that they can play more freely,” Kohli said.
It’s the reason several franchises and teams push their most destructive players up the order, even if they might not be openers by trade. In any case, in T20s, more than any other format, specialisation of batting spots is grossly exaggerated. Every batsman worth his salt wants to do this in that format — even Ben Stokes opens for Rajasthan Royals.
There’s no reason why Kohli should not blossom in his new role. It’s not new after all. He has donned it several times in the past for Royal Challengers Bangalore and had tucked in runs with relish. In the eight games in which he has opened in international cricket, Kohli’s strike rate shoots up from 138 to 149, even if the average slips from a devastating 52.65 to a healthy 39.71. He could slip into several roles too — could be the anchor (in T20 context) like he was against England, or swap the aggressor’s role with Sharma. There’s little not impossible for batsman Kohli.
Virat Kohli in the T20Is v England
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) March 20, 2021
The Indian captain’s decision, thus, was more pragmatic than an inspired one. It was not a leap of faith moment like Sachin Tendulkar putting his hands up to open in an ODI in New Zealand and going on to tear up most records in the game.
It could be equally effective though. Kohli’s move was not urged by necessity or desperation — it was not a last-ditch resort, when all others ploys had failed, or a sacrifice — but his instinct to think one step ahead of the rapidly evolving game, after a practical weighing up of the batting riches in his coffers.
It was also a clear indication of how the game is rapidly changing. In T20s, unlike other forms, short-term plans reap more rewards than long-term ones. It’s hurtling forth at such a frantic pace that there’s little time to nurse and nurture, or stop and stare. Also, India can’t afford a fleeting slip-up in a World Cup year. So, it’s the current form of a player that matters than the promise he provides. And in the present form, India’s middle order is irresistible, now that Yadav and Iyer are battling like royalty themselves.
Besides, Kohli and the team management would feel that the earlier they have clarity over the roles, the better it is. They would not want a repeat of the confusion that ate into India’s prospects of winning the 50-over World Cup in 2019. Nothing more shambolic or symbolic than their elusive hunt for a Number Four batsman.
So chaotic was the way they went about that even midway through the campaign, they did not know who their best No 4 was. Nor their best XI. In the previous T20 World Cup, at home, the team went with an outdated approach, wherein they played T20 games like a compressed 50-over game rather than realising that it has metamorphosed into a self-sufficient entity of its own. That they opened with Ajinkya Rahane tells the story. This time Kohli’s already being proactive and thinking a few steps ahead without losing a clutch of the present.
It’s also a wake-up call to batsmen like Agarwal that unless they rack up runs at a consistent level, their opportunities will dwindle. T20s are not like Tests or ODIs wherein, players could be given a longer rope. Moreover, the pool of talent at India’s disposal is immense, there are multiple challengers for the same spot, and only the fittest, both literally and figuratively, shall survive the churn and grind. No one is invincible or indispensable to this side. And there was no better statement of this truth than Kohli deciding to open.
Despite Virat Kohli saying he would open with Rohit Sharma in T20Is from now on, the latter hinted that the team would be more flexible towards picking his opening partner for the World Cup.
“I am sure we need to sit and analyse and collect our thoughts on what would be the right thing for the team. If that means he (Kohli) has to open with me, so be it. There is still a lot of time before the World Cup starts,” said Sharma, who clearly seemed unfussed about his partner.
Between now and the World Cup, India are scheduled to feature in a raft of T20I fixtures. “We’ve got a good amount of time, there’s the IPL in between and I’m hearing there will be a few T20s as well before the World Cup. Things might change as and when we get closer to the World Cup,” Sharma said.
The only time I’m going to lean right in any life decision. pic.twitter.com/dHfZIb9mBA
— Osman Samiuddin (@OsmanSamiuddin) March 20, 2021
Saturday’s decision to open with Kohli was a tactical move, as India wanted to pick six bowlers on a placid batting track. “Looking at current form, the team management decided to go with the best XI. Having said that, it doesn’t send any signal that KL (Rahul) will not be considered or anything like that,” Sharma revealed.
“As and when we get closer to the World Cup, we need to see the opposition that we are playing, the grounds we are playing at. It plays a huge role depending on the opposition and the conditions out there,” he said.
Shikhar Dhawan: The senior opener requires a blockbuster Indian Premier League (IPL) to get back into the frame. He needs to not only stack up runs but also score them at a quick tempo too. His T20Is strike rate of 127 is just middling by modern-day yardsticks. Dhawan redressed it somewhat during the last IPL, wherein his runs came at a career-best strike rate of 144. He needs to continue the pattern in the upcoming edition too. At 35, age is catching up.
KL Rahul: Simple. Runs and truckloads of runs. The IPL presents a fabulous opportunity and he needs to make it count. Given his talent and track record, Rahul seems just a few good knocks away from breaking into the eleven. If he regains his touch in the IPL, Kohli could be tempted to reintroduce him because of the sheer impact he could make. His adeptness at batting anywhere in the order and ability to keep wickets should push his case further. Nonetheless, he is the first-choice back-up opener, and probably the third-choice wicketkeeper.
The rest: In the present circumstances, the World Cup looks a distant dream for the likes of Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill. They should continue piling on the runs in the IPL and domestic circuit, while hoping that they get a rare break and make the best of it. They need to do a Suryakumar Yadav — and that would be the case for breaking into the team for most other fringe players too.