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India vs England: KL Rahul mentoring as opener key to fix India top-order woes

Top-order batting, playing like a dream in friendly home conditions, has floundered on lively pitches and against pace. And constant changes have not helped.

cricket Updated: Aug 06, 2018 09:06 IST
N Ananthanarayanan
N Ananthanarayanan
Hindustan times, Birmingham
KL Rahul,Shikhar Dhawan,Murali Vijay
KL Rahul made a century in only his second Test at Opener in Sydney, Australia. (Action Images via Reuters)

When Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan added 50 in the first innings of the Edgbaston Test, it was India’s first half-century opening partnership for 18 innings in England, going back to 2011.

India’s push for excellence has helped find depth in pace and spin, competition for spots pushing up standards as bowlers have delivered 20 wickets in each of the last four high-profile overseas Tests. Shuffle there hasn’t hurt as replacements have been really good.

But the results in those four Tests stand at 1-3. It is a clear evidence of India’s batting travails despite skipper Virat Kohli delivering.

Top-order batting, playing like a dream in friendly home conditions, has floundered on lively pitches and against pace. And constant changes have not helped.

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While Cheteshwar Pujara’s confidence has not been helped as he goes in and out of the team, it is also clear that KL Rahul, India’s best long-term prospect, has not relished batting anywhere other than his favourite opening slot.

The 26–year-old was a picture of confidence after making a century in his second Test in Sydney on the 2014-15 Australia tour. That came after he was restored to open, which he does for Karnataka, having played at No 6 and 3 on debut in Melbourne, where he failed.

In Edgbaston, sent in at No 3, he made four off two deliveries and 13 of 24, and looked shaky all through. Rahul’s stats show he is at his best as opener. Once he gets a start, he makes it count. He has opened in 11 away Tests, the Port of Spain game was all but washed out in 2016, and the numbers tell a story.

The sequence of scores -- 110&16; 7&5, 108&2; 2&2; 158; 50&28; 57; 85; 10&4; 0; 4&13 – show he is best at opener. And if India’s selectors – a selector travels with the team abroad – and team management are thinking of a succession plan for the most challenging spot away from home, and KL Rahul as the best prospect among talented India openers, they will have to find if he is in the right mental space when not opening.

It is no secret Shikhar Dhawan does not have the technique to handle the swinging ball, which negates the plan for a right-left opening combination. In both innings in Edgbaston, the left-handed batsman walked into his shot unsure of the line, caught at slip and by keeper. He also lacks footwork, which will make him vulnerable in Australia, India’s next destination.

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Murali Vijay has shown temperament and technique to score centuries in Australia, England and South Africa. His ability to focus, and pick the right delivery to score, came through on the 2014 England tour as well. But Vijay is 34, and after a few injuries in the last two seasons, his reflexes don’t seem to be the same and was trapped by seaming deliveries in both innings.

Rahul’s four-year Test career is in two parts. The first phase, until his brilliant show against Australia at home last year despite shoulder injury. And the second, after shoulder surgery, when he was not immediately restored to the opener’s slot and failed after being pushed into the ODI middle-order in the 2017 Sri Lanka tour. Repeatedly being beaten by Akila Dananjaya’s spin sapped his confidence.

In South Africa, India again started with Shikhar, and only after he failed in Cape Town did they switch to Rahul, and he failed.

Pujara too is grappling with dip in confidence as he goes in and out of the eleven. At 30, he must be at the peak of his abilities. He can learn to score more fluently, from how Rahul Dravid learnt to shed his initial focus on technique alone.

First Published: Aug 06, 2018 09:05 IST