Virat Kohli’s first century since November 2019, against Afghanistan on Thursday, is likely to prompt a discussion in the coming days around India’s T20I batting order heading into this year’s World Cup. His 122* off 61 balls – his first for India in the shortest format – came while opening the batting with Rohit Sharma resting for the Asia Cup dead rubber. That he has regained some of his fluency is good news for India of course, but should the team now continue with him as opener to get the best out of him?
The question was put to stand-in skipper KL Rahul after the game on Thursday. “Toh kya main khud baith jaaon? (So should I sit out?)” Rahul shot back. “You get confidence if you play 2-3 innings, really happy that he could play that way. You all know Kohli, you have been watching him for so many years. It is not like he will only score centuries if he opens the batting. If he bats at No 3, he can then also score centuries. It is all about roles and what role a certain player has.”
Rahul’s response comes with the assumption that he will have to be dropped from the playing eleven in order to accommodate Kohli as an opener alongside Sharma. But that need not be the case. A glance at Rahul’s white-ball career suggests that he is more destructive batting lower down the order than at the top. In ODIs, for instance, Rahul has been a revelation at No 5, scoring 453 runs in 10 matches at an average of 56.62 and strike rate of 113.81. Contrast this to strike rates of 78.61 and 82.82 at Nos 1 and 2.
In T20Is too, albeit it’s a smaller sample size, his four innings at No 4 have yielded 174 runs at a strike rate of 175.75 with a best of 110 not out. As opener too, he has done pretty well — striking at below 140. Once again, the numbers show he can be accommodated lower down the order if need be.
For Kohli too, a switch to opening the batting on a regular basis may be more suitable given where his game is currently at. He’s no longer the most fluent of starters against spin and finds it increasingly difficult to get going when the field is spread out.
While 67 of his 96 T20I innings have come at No 3 – he’s scored 2623 runs at 54.64 and a strike rate of 135.06 at that position – he has stated a desire to open the batting in the past as well. After scoring an unbeaten 80 off 52 balls against England in March 2021 as an opener, he had said: “I have batted in different positions in the past. But I feel we have a solid middle-order now. So, I will definitely like to partner Rohit at the top going into the T20 World Cup.”
The plan didn’t materialise that way at the T20 World Cup though. Come the first game against Pakistan, it was Sharma and Rahul who reunited at the top with Kohli at No 3. India’s reluctance to not try Rahul in the middle-order in T20Is – he has batted outside the top-3 in just four of his 57 T20I innings – is at odds with the flexibility he has shown in the 50-over format.
He has faced many situations in ODI cricket where he’s come in with just 6-7 overs remaining, and never once has he been bogged down by the demands of batting in the slog overs. Much like Suryakumar Yadav and Dinesh Karthik, he has the 360-degree range to hit boundaries all across the field as well the power to dispatch the ball into the stands when needed. Particularly considering Rahul’s struggles in getting off to quick starts –an aspect that’s been highlighted in the Indian Premier League (IPL) – a reshuffle might just free him up.
Batting in the middle-order in ODIs didn’t come naturally to him at first, but he put in enough work to be at ease with it. “I don’t think technically I have practised anything different. I just spoke a lot more to middle-order batsmen and watched a lot of videos. I spoke a lot to Virat (Kohli) and watched a lot of videos of AB (de Villiers) and Steve Smith for that matter and how they build their innings,” Rahul had said a couple of years ago.
Having Sharma and Kohli at the top with Rahul in the middle-order also enables India to have Suryakumar bat at No 3, which is where his remarkable range and run of form will be optimised. While these are difficult decisions for India to mull, they will hope to settle down on a combination before the six games against Australia and South Africa that act as a prelude to the T20 World Cup.