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Can Rahul use the IPL to springboard into team India?

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KL_Rahul_India_cricket_IPLEvery year, the Indian Premier League (IPL) brings with it the promise offering a player the chance to make a mark and stamp his authority in the cricketing arena. This year, the cash-rich league is especially important for keeper-batsman KL Rahul, who will be hopeful of cementing his spot in the Indian national team. Rahul has been in and out of the side ever since his Test debut in Australia in 2014 and has struggled to find his position in the squad.

It is not that his numbers do not back him up. His Test average of 40.50, with 4 hundreds and 10 fifties, including a career best of 199, is hardly unimpressive. He made his limited overs debut during India’s tour to Zimbabwe in 2016 and has been raking in the runs in coloured clothing as well. An average of 35.42 in ODIs and an average of 45.45 with a strike-rate of 146.62 in T20Is are figures that normally would have ensured a direct selection in India’s limited overs sides. But Rahul has found himself on the bench, more often than not, when he should ideally have been on the field.

After two blistering knocks of 61 and 89 in the T20I series against Sri Lanka, Rahul had an average Nidahas Trophy, managing just 42 runs in two innings. His performance in Kings XI Punjab’s opening match of IPL 2018, where he raced away to the tournament’s fastest fifty in just 14 deliveries, eventually ending with 51 in 16, once again had critics questioning his absence in the Indian set-up for a consistent period of time.

The issue is not Rahul’s form or even his potential, for skipper Virat Kohli, having watched Rahul’s progression from a Test player to a T20 stroke-maker from close quarters in the 2016 IPL, has stated time and again that his former RCB teammate remains an outstanding talent.

 

"KL (Rahul) is an outstanding talent. He is proved himself in all formats. And he is someone who needs to be backed. Because we believe that he has the ability.”

 

The issue is that the Indian management regards Rahul as a specialist opener, and with the Indian line-up already having a settled pair in Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, Rahul has been forced to bat up and down the order without many consecutive games. With these constant changes, he is often unable to find his feet in the team.

The IPL offers him the opportunity to change that. Though he missed out last year due to an injury, his heroics from 2016 are still fresh in many minds. Along with Kohli, Rahul had been one of the mainstays of the RCB team, scoring 397 runs in 14 matches with an average of 44.11 and a strike-rate more than 146. Two years ago, he had batted in the middle order with Kohli and Chris Gayle opening the batting. Thus, it is strange to see the Indian think-tank hesitating to play Rahul in the middle order, at least in T20Is.

One argument can be that he is simply that good as an opener. The Karnataka player has the best average amongst Indian players who have opened the innings in T20s at least 5 times. His balls per boundary rate is 5.89, just behind Kohli’s rate of 4.10.

 

Since his debut in 2016, he has scored 500 T20I runs, which makes him the second highest run-scorer for India in this period, behind Rohit. He also has the third highest average amongst the T20I batsmen who have scored more than 500 runs, behind Pakistan’s Babar Azam and Kohli.

 

On these grounds alone the 25-year-old warrants a place in the side. It might not be a bad move to push Rohit down the order and play KL Rahul with Dhawan at the top, in T20Is at least, if the Indian coaching staff is in two minds about playing him in the middle order.

Not only is Rohit familiar with that position, having started his journey playing lower down, he also has an average of 45.25 at number four and averages 36 at number 6 – more than his average as a T20 opener, 32.05. For the Mumbai Indians, he has been a regular player in the middle overs and has tasted success at that position consistently. He knows how to pace his innings and the right-hander has already shown his shot-making skills.

With India’s middle order in the shortest format looking iffy and MS Dhoni losing his finishing skills, India could do with a reliable middle order player who can support Kohli after the loss of early wickets.

Considering the fact that KL Rahul is not fully at ease against the old ball, and with Rohit facing his own share of problems against the swinging ball, it will not be a bad move for them to switch roles. But for that to happen, and for the management to seriously consider this proposition, Rahul will have to make sure they cannot ignore his performances in the eleventh edition of the IPL.

 

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