India's Shikhar Dhawan acknowledges K.L. Rahul's shot(AP)
India's Shikhar Dhawan acknowledges K.L. Rahul's shot(AP)

India vs Sri Lanka 3rd T20I | India’s No. 1 debate: Shikhar Dhawan or KL Rahul?

As India face Sri Lanka in the third and final T20I at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune on Friday, Shikhar Dhawan would want to revive form with KL Rahul hitting top gear.
Hindustan Times, Pune | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON JAN 10, 2020 04:15 PM IST

Has KL Rahul overtaken Shikhar Dhawan in the race to be Rohit Sharma’s regular opening partner in international T20s? Recent performances—and the contrast in their respective batting approaches in the Indore T20I against Sri Lanka—suggest that Rahul is indeed on the verge of going from back-up to mainstay, well in time for the World T20 in Australia later this year.

During the chase in Indore, Rahul raced off the blocks and struck all his six boundaries in the powerplay, while Dhawan had to wait until the ninth over to hit his first. The right-handed Karnataka opener hit some sweet cover drives in his 32-ball 45, while the Delhi southpaw looked uncomfortable as he laboured to a 29-ball 32.

Time in fast running out for Dhawan. But in Sharma’s absence, he will have at least one more chance to prove his mettle to captain Virat Kohli and the team management in Pune on Friday. The third and final T20I of this series at the MCA Stadium, therefore, may mean a little more to India’s incumbent openers than any other position in Kohli’s playing eleven.

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With the squad for the New Zealand series to be announced over the weekend, both Dhawan and Rahul will be keen to stake their respective claim for the top spot. But the truth is that one of them will be forced to move down the order by the time the five T20Is in New Zealand begin on January 24, and the big question is who.

Dhawan has always opened while Rahul has batted at various spots—No 3 in Kohli’s absence and even No 4 at times. During the 50-over World Cup as well, Rahul started at No 4 but was pushed up the order once Dhawan injured his thumb after two matches.

In both T20s and ODIs, Rahul has done well in Dhawan’s absence -- as recently as the last series against West Indies as well -- and it has seemingly become difficult for team management to ignore his claim to open besides Sharma.

“Rahul has done really well for himself and it’s good for the team as well that he’s coming into his own. We know how good a player he is and what he can do with the bat. We are happy that he has got runs so consistently,” skipper Kohli said before the rained-out T20 in Guwahati. “When Rohit comes back, it’s going to be a difficult thing to address because Shikhar is an experienced player but KL is playing so well. We have to decide the best combination to go with.”

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On current form, Rahul looks the better bet. Since 2019 began, Rahul has six forty-plus scores including four fifties in 11 T20 internationals while Dhawan has just two in as many games and none of them reaching fifty. Dhawan also suffered a spate of injuries last year, which didn’t help his cause. But the management is aware of his ability to churn out big numbers in ICC events, and that makes leaving him out a tricky proposition.

Dhawan isn’t new to comebacks. Before the 2019 World Cup, he went through a lean phase and questions were raised about his place in the team. But he bounced back in style, hitting a hundred against Australia in India’s last series before the World Cup and also struck one against the Aussies in England before the injury ruled him out.

Although he has been used as a makeshift No 4 in white-ball cricket for India, the opener’s slot is where he truly belongs; that’s where Rahul has played all his life. As an opener he played a crucial hand in delivering both the Vijay Hazare and Syed Mushtaq Ali trophies for Karnataka this season. And as an opener he has had two monster seasons for Kings XI Punjab in the IPL.

After scoring a crucial 56-ball 91 in the T20 series-decider against West Indies in Mumbai, Rahul addressed his unique problem of being in and out of the playing eleven. “Obviously, it is never easy on any player. There is no opposition where you can just walk in and score runs, so it’s always difficult. And this game is all about confidence and all about being in good rhythm and being in good touch,” he said.

For a player who first made his name in Test cricket, Rahul has crafted his game with each passing year to suit the needs of the limited-overs format, adding shots he never played before to his growing repertoire. Those cover drives in the powerplay in the Indore T20 left everyone in awe of Rahul’s abilities.

At the same time Dhawan’s game has stagnated. And unless he chances upon second wind, he may well see Rahul walking out to bat with Sharma by the time the T20 World Cup comes around.

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