On Thursday, as KL Rahul walked out to bat at No 3, the television cameras panned to Virat Kohli who sat on the balcony of the Indian dressing room at the Pallekele International Stadium, sipping tea (could have been coffee too!).
This particular move ended the ongoing joke that Sri Lanka would have to win the toss and bowl first for Rahul to have a chance of batting at his newfound No 4 position. Even so, it wasn’t really surprising to see Rahul walk out ahead of the skipper. Kohli had promised "bold experimentation and unpredictability" for this long limited-overs’ schedule until December. This move hardly scratched the surface.
What did come as a surprise, though, was when Kedar Jadhav walked out to bat next. Again, it was an understandable promotion in the context of the game, but in his short ODI career so far, Jadhav has never been trusted with a role that needs giving direction to the middle order. At best, he has batted higher up than No 6 on the tours to Zimbabwe. Pretty much every other time he has gone out to bat, the situation has been a different one.
He lasted three balls, and it showed in his shot selection, particularly when he tried to hit the second delivery he faced out of sight. Jadhav was like a rabbit caught in the headlights, not knowing what to do as the Sri Lankan spinners came on. Within the span of three deliveries, he could not decide whether to attack or defend, and it reflected in the way he got out – moving forward, then back, and getting bowled through the gate off a ball that came in.
“This coming season gives us an opportunity to define roles for players and give them time to execute it so that for the World Cup we know exactly what one player needs to do in certain situations. It is not going to be anything that we have done in the past repetitively. It is not going to be predictable anymore,” said Kohli in the build-up to the second ODI.
His words reveal the single-minded approach of this Indian team management. They trust the squad – and the playing eleven therein – that has been selected to do the job against this Sri Lankan team. They will do so when such experimentation in selection is carried out against Australia and New Zealand in the upcoming home series as well. It is the cornerstone of their strategy for the 2019 World Cup.
As part of this strategy, they want to thrust different roles onto different personnel and note how they measure up to these challenges. Rahul batting in the middle order is the primary example of this move, but looking back at the second ODI, Jadhav’s elevation in the line-up at Pallekele is another reflection of the same experiment at the micro level.
In doing this, the Indian team management wants to see what Jadhav can do. Yes, he can bat at No 6 and provide a final flourish to the innings. But can he rebuild an innings when the top order collapses? In the 2017 Champions Trophy final against Pakistan, Jadhav was found wanting when he had the opportunity to do the same. Team India don’t want to go to the World Cup wondering if Jadhav will ever be able to do that. Instead, they want to evaluate now, put him in situations that challenge his comfort zone and push him to find new avenues to his game, if he can that is. Otherwise, there are other options available.
Perhaps Rahul’s introduction in the middle order is an even bigger experiment, and you just have to look at the 2015 World Cup to know why. In the build-up to that tournament, then-skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni decided that the middle order anchoring role would be thrust on Ajinkya Rahane and Ambati Rayudu as back up. It wasn’t a thoughtless decision – both Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina had been trialled in that role until the end of 2013. And after the South African tour when Yuvraj was dropped, the final call was made.
Rahane was given a long run at No 4 so he didn’t arrive at the World Cup in a half-baked mental space. That the move did not work out in the longer term is beside the point, but it did work well enough in the immediate context of the tournament India had been preparing for. In that light, yes, there can be an argument against trying another opener in the middle-order. But again, the team management has already taken that decision, and it is now only about following this particular path further, reaching the optimal conclusion in three months’ time.
Whether mixing up the positions of Rahul, Jadhav and Hardik Pandya, or throwing Manish Pandey (even Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer) into the mix at some point underlines the importance of this experimentation process that Kohli and the selectors have set themselves on. Over the course of the remainder of this series, and the home series against Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, the Men in Blue need to keep on testing out different scenarios with different batsmen inserted at positions different to the natural order.
By December, it will then help in shortlisting the players who can do the requisite job at specified batting spots. Then, over the course of overseas tours in 2018-19, it will be about fine-tuning their roles in preparation for the big ticket event in England.