India find strength in the middle
KL Rahul shows he can be the anchor when India need middle and lower-order resistance, especially with the home ODI World Cup to be held in October-November
The asking rate doesn’t matter in a 189-run chase. The equation was simple for Australia on Friday – they needed 10 wicket-taking balls. They got five of them on target by the 20th over and the odds were heavily in favour of Australia getting the rest also cheaply. But KL Rahul and Ravindra Jadeja, the last recognised batting pair, stayed put and got the job done.
Australia captain Steve Smith was on point when he said: “We were always one partnership from them beating us, and Jadeja and Rahul did that.”
The individual wins need to be noted here first. Rahul was going through a run drought unlike any in his career, one that brought some pretty hard-hitting criticism, possibly prompted his removal as vice-captain and made him dispensable to the Test core. Ravindra Jadeja’s skills don’t need annual validation but an injury layoff can always stoke concern even to the best of cricketers. Which is why this left-right partnership – basically an undertaking that India’s batting won’t end with the top-five – is the kind of assurance India need in a year they are hosting the World Cup.
Two massive points can be gleaned from this win. With Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Shami – he can wield the long handle pretty well – still to come, Rahul and Jadeja showcased India’s batting depth and sent out a notice to other teams. If the top order falls quickly, India can still rely on their lower order to salvage the innings. And in case of a high run chase – it is more likely than is the norm in India during the October-November World Cup – the top order has the liberty to go hard at the target because of this batting depth.
Friday’s win in Mumbai thus ticks one box as India go into the second ODI in Visakhapatnam on Sunday. Granted the target wasn’t huge at the Wankhede but in finishing the chase within 40 overs after being reduced to 39/4 in the 11th over, Rahul and Jadeja kept their nerve to maintain a decent run rate without losing wickets. What is more heartening is the maturity with which the duo handled the chase.
“I saw three wickets fall early and (Mitchell) Starc was really swinging the ball. When he gets the ball back in, he’s a dangerous bowler,” Rahul told Star Sports after India’s five-wicket win in Mumbai. “So, I just wanted to bat through the first 15-20 balls and take it from there.”
Even the great batters are suspect against the moving ball. And Rahul was on shakier ground. So, he took his time and left deliveries, knowing that prevailing would put him on firmer ground. “I wasn't really thinking about runs, it wasn't a big total. I just wanted to give myself time, play normal cricket shots and not go searching for runs. A couple of boundaries early on settled my nerves a bit and got me going.”
From a larger perspective, it was imperative that a specialist middle-order batter – not an all-rounder – came good in a precarious situation. Rahul did that, after first stitching 44 runs with Hardik Pandya, as India slowly sought to get clear of choppy waters. Jadeja’s entry ultimately opened up avenues, though he too found the start a bit tough. “I was looking to build a partnership today of about 70-80 runs, and that's what happened. It was not easy to play the big shots because the ball was swinging,” Jadeja said later.
Rahul knew it was a matter of time before Australia fluffed their lines because of this left-right partnership. This is where Rahul’s true value came through in his partnership with Jadeja. "The minute a left-hander walked in, I got a few loose balls as well, and that happens to the best of bowlers,” Rahul said. “He's been in great form and he batted beautifully. He’s played a lot of cricket and knows exactly what to do at that position. We enjoy batting together. He runs fast, and I love someone who can run fast, run hard and put the pressure on the fielding team and bowlers. I’m happy we could do that today.”
To win the match from where India were placed – losing half the side by the 20th over and the game tipping sharply towards Australia – is a quiet substantiation of their batting maturity. That it was shepherded by Rahul only makes this win sweeter.