Virat Kohli’s ‘gift of timing’ as a batsman is one of his biggest strengths. The moment Kohli finished as the highest scorer (231 runs) of the five-match T20 series with a pretty decent strike rate (147.13) he didn’t lose a second to announce India’s strategic shift for the opening position for the upcoming T20 World cup.
“If we have a partnership and we both are set, then you know that one of us is going to cause some serious damage,” said Kohli after India’s series-deciding win against England on Saturday. “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. It augurs well for the team and I would like this to continue, and hopefully continue that form through to the World Cup.” Perhaps, the timing for the announcement of his new vision wasn’t appropriate as captain.
One can always argue that any set opener can ‘cause serious damage’ and not just Rohit or Kohli. However, that argument will have few takers when the easiest and laziest fallback option to validate Kohli’s thought is available in the form of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly opening together in One Day International. Even the great Sunil Gavaskar went on to elaborate how Tendulkar’s elevation not only transformed his batting but the whole team. “So clearly, your best batsmen have to bat as many overs as they can,” argued Gavaskar on India Today.
Maybe this is a classic case of oversimplification when anyone compares the ODI format to T20s. The assumption that T20 is the abridged version of ODI is as flawed as the theory of ODI being the compressed version of Test cricket. An ODI opener can easily afford to take the first 20-25 balls to settle down since it constitutes less than 10 percent of the entire innings. In T20, where a single ball can have such a great influence on the outcome of the match, 12 balls are exactly the one-tenth part of an innings. Imagine if an opener with a traditional mindset approaches the first 20-25 balls as was the case with Kohli’s first 21 balls yielded just 21 runs (almost a run a ball). Indeed, fellow opener Rohit Sharma, No. 3 Suryakumar Yadav and Hardik Pandya’s late order belligerence apart from Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s miserly spell negated the relatively slow start of Kohli but is it the best way for India to approach T20 in future? “It is a long time to go for the (T20) World Cup, so early days to talk about how our batting will look like. We have to sit and analyse what suits the team the most,” said Rohit after the series win.
A captain who has been the most successful in the history of IPL certainly knows a thing or two to back his match-winners. “Today was a tactical move because we wanted to play an extra bowler and wanted to leave one batsman out. Unfortunately, it was KL (Rahul) which was very tough,” said Rohit in his post-match chat which was refreshing and reassuring if you are KL Rahul. Ideally, this ought to have come from captain Kohli.
Yes, Rahul has been going through a tough phase with just one double-digit score (14) in the last five matches. But, isn’t it a bit harsh to tell someone that he is out of the scheme of things for a high-profile tournament like World Cup which is still six months away? From 11th December 2019 to 6th December 2020, Rahul had the sequence of 91,45,54,56,57*,27,39,45,51,30 which is nearly 500 runs at an average of 55 and strike rate above 145 with five fifty-plus score. It is well documented that how former captain MS Dhoni revived Rohit Sharma’s ODI career by backing him to the hilt despite a disastrous tour of Sri Lanka in 2012 where he could manage only 13 runs in 5 matches. Since Rohit was seen as a precious talent and all-format player for India, Dhoni asked him to open in ODIs. Like Rohit, Rahul is also seen as an-all format player for India and if ever needed any backing from his captain this was the time.
And, we are not even talking about the contemporary of Kohli who has a formidable record in ICC tournaments and needs some support from his captain. The experienced and left-handed Shikhar Dhawan has two fifty-plus scores and a 28 in his last 5 T20s with 140 plus strike rate. Like Rahul, Dhawan too had an outstanding IPL 2020.
Since T20 template is dictated so much by the data, it must have not skipped Kohli’s attention that some of the top openers across the world average 37 and their strike at 150. When the same set of batters is not opening the average is 28 and strike rate nearly 141. (source: Jarrod Kimber’s Sports Almanac) Modern statistical evidence unequivocally suggests that there is no better place than opening the innings.
Even great Tendulkar never wanted to bat in the middle order once he became hugely successful as an opener in ODIs. So much so that, there was a big debate ahead of 2003 World Cup in South Africa since coach John Wright and captain Sourav Ganguly wanted Tendulkar to bat in the middle order to give solidarity but he wasn’t impressed with this idea. The challenges for a middle-over batsman in ODI are greater since the onus to finish the match invariably comes on their shoulders. While such are the advantages of opening if you are a very good middle-order batsman; you never want to go back to bat in your original position. How many of you can remember that one of the heroes of India’s world cup win in 2011, Gautam Gambhir didn’t open but batted at number 3 since Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag (both originally middle-order batsmen) were reluctant to leave the opening position. Even though Gambhir had the additional advantage of being a left-hander, he had no option but to accept the team management’s thought process.
When India replaced Rahul with pacer T Natarajan for the decisive match of the series Kohli said something interesting. “KL has been one of our key players in limited-overs, especially in this format. Looking at current form, the team management decided to go with the best 11. Having said that, it doesn’t send any signal that KL will not be considered or anything like that. This was just for one particular game. Things might change as we go closer to World Cup.”
It is difficult to fathom how Kohli could change his mind so suddenly once the match got over in Ahmadabad. If that sounds bizarre then read another quote from Kohli just before this series where he had gone on record that Rohit and Rahul were India's first-choice opening pair. “We do understand his (Rahul's) ability and his contribution at the top, what he’s done for us. So, yeah, I’m not going to rule out anything, or neither will I say that this is the preferred batting lineup for a World Cup.” They say one week is a long time in politics and in India’s T20 policy for the future perhaps that holds true as well. The only consolation for the likes of Rahul and Dhawan is that there is still a big tournament like IPL is going to be played in the next two months where they will have an equal opportunity to outscore and outsmart Kohli as an opener who will be opening for his franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore.