India vs England: Virat Kohli and Co's batting worries shift from middle to the top order

Cut back to January 2013, when India were involved in a bilateral ODI series against England at home. Ajinkya Rahane opened the innings in the first three matches, scoring 47, 4 and naught. Rohit Sharma opened the innings in the latter two games, scoring 83 and four.

India won that series 3-2, the last for six months before the 2013 Champions Trophy in England. Then skipper MS Dhoni was clear in his thinking – he wanted Rohit to open going ahead. Come June, he partnered up with Shikhar Dhawan and the rest is history, as the Men in Blue romped to victory.

There is a similarity now in 2017, in that India have just finished an ODI series at home against the English in January. In June, they will fly to England for the Champions Trophy. And much like four years ago, the BCCI forgot to schedule any more ODIs in between.

Cricket - West Indies v India - World Twenty20 cricket tournament semi-final - Mumbai, India - 31/03/2016. India's Rohit Sharma plays a shot. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

File photo of India's Rohit Sharma. Reuters

It leaves a big quandary for the team management and the new skipper. Currently, India have three fit first-choice openers for ODIs, Rahane, Dhawan and KL Rahul. On evidence of the England series, none of them are in form. Rohit makes it a four-play, and he will be an obvious starter in June, if fit. The question is, who will be start with him, and who will be left standing behind?

Rahul can breathe a momentary sigh of relief, never mind his lack of runs (24 runs in three innings against England), or even his terrible shot selection at times. His poor form at present can be attributed to the ‘incubation period’ – one, wherein a new member of the team is still finding his feet.

Yes, the argument can be made that he has been part of the national set-up since 2014-15 now, a good two years. But those making this cynical point would be mixing up the Test and ODI formats.

It needs to be pointed out that not before the 2016 IPL season did Rahul make any waves in the limited-overs’ arena. After enjoying a successful stint with Virat Kohli at Royal Challengers Bangalore, he was fast-tracked to open in Zimbabwe, where again he found instant success thanks to his continued good form.

Cricket - India A v England XI- One-day warm-up match match - Brabourne stadium, Mumbai, India - 10/01/2017. India A's Shikhar Dhawan plays a shot. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

File photo of India's Shikhar Dhawan. Reuters

Things are a bit different now; he has been injured this past season, missing important Tests against New Zealand and England, and a lack of consistent game-time has affected his run scoring.

Not to mention, the English ODI attack is a more daunting challenge than the Zimbabweans’. And so, it cannot be denied that Rahul is a long-term prospect. This puts both Rahane and Dhawan under the scanner.

To be fair, the left-hander has always played with a sword perennially hanging over his head. It was the case when he made his debut back in 2010-11 as a stand-in for Virender Sehwag/Gautam Gambhir, and then disappeared for two years.

Perhaps the only time he was free of this unwanted spotlight was when he re-arrived in 2013. That blistering maiden Test hundred in Mohali set him up and then he blazed the Champions Trophy with two hundreds. It has never been the same again for him.

Surprisingly enough, his numbers are still good, averaging 42.91 in 76 ODIs overall. Even in the last two years post the 2015 World Cup, he averages 38.86 in 15 matches. There is an odd pattern developing though. Dig a bit deeper in these latter statistics, and an uncomfortable picture emerges for Dhawan.\

Cricket - India v England - Second One Day International - Barabati Stadium, Cuttack, India - 19/01/17. England's Chris Woakes (L) celebrates the dismissal of India's Lokesh Rahul. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

File photo of India's Lokesh Rahul. Reuters

Since that last World Cup, in live contests (when the series hasn’t been settled), he averages only 25.33 in 12 matches with three half-centuries. His highest scores in this time period – 75 against Bangladesh, 126 and 78 against Australia – came when India had already lost the series.

It is not to say that Dhawan is playing for his spot more often than not. But it surely does indicate that he takes a lot more time to get accustomed to conditions and opposition.

In a short series like the recent one against England, it leaves him without any impressionable returns. And yet, this fact doesn’t alter that he is still an impact player, given his impressive record in ICC tournaments.

Does this improve Rahane’s chances? Not quite, this is what Kohli had to say about his openers’ poor form in Kolkata on Sunday. “We have very good openers with us. It’s not a case where we have to find openers. You have to give chances for people to come back into form. I think if we back our openers and give them confidence, it’s all about one or two innings. Once you get the flow, everything clicks.”

More chances for both Rahul and Dhawan, irrespective of reasons, mean Rahane’s ODI spot is in considerable danger. On evidence of both the New Zealand and England series, the team management no longer thinks of him as a middle-order option. But is he a second-choice or third-choice top-order option?

Rahane has opened in 43 out of 73 ODIs played, and his overall career average (32.42) isn’t too far off from what he averages (32.19) when he opens the innings. The underlining point herein being that after 2013, he hasn’t enjoyed a consistent run at the top of the order. These opportunities have come in spurts, when first-choice openers are unavailable, thus never allowing him to settle down.

Cricket - West Indies v India - World Twenty20 cricket tournament semi-final - Mumbai, India - 31/03/2016. India's Ajinkya Rahane plays a shot. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

File photo of India's Ajinkya Rahane. Reuters

In that light, the New Zealand series in October was a huge miss for Rahane. In Rohit’s absence, and coming on the back of good form in Tests, he opened in five consecutive matches but returned only 143 runs at 28.60. Perhaps that poor run severely dented his confidence, as seen in the Tests against England, and has also harmed his future chances.

Is it a coincidence that Rahane – arguably India’s most dependable batsmen in recent years – is missing from the T20I squad for the forthcoming series, and is conceivably already out of contention in the shortest format?

Much like four years ago, it is a confusing mix of picking from three openers to partner Rohit in the Champions Trophy. Back then, the captain and team management backed players they foresaw doing this job in the 2015 World Cup. As such, when the time comes, much will depend on whom the selectors – and Kohli – see in that role for 2019.

Published Date: Jan 25, 2017 11:53 AM | Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 11:53 AM

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