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The case for KL Rahul in India’s Test middle order

by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

Batting in the middle order, KL Rahul hit a century in the first innings of the warm-up game against a County Select XI and it might be a role he is apt to fill in for the series against England.

The highs of the series win in Australia and the home series victory over England notwithstanding, the fact remains that India’s Test batting line-up has several holes to plug. Some of them were exposed in the World Test Championship final against a quality New Zealand pace attack.

It is hard to ignore the inkling that the one-off Test presented a sample of the imminent batting disaster in England. While there is lots to rave about India’s bowling attack that has been pivotal to their success in the last few years, there are gaping holes in the batting line-up that are becoming hard to hide.

Virat Kohli’s last Test century came in 2019, and since then, the only middle-order batsman, with a decent sample size, to thrive has been Rishabh Pant. His success and the odd knock from Ajinkya Rahane has saved the batting some blushes, but it gets harder to do that in England where the top-order is more vulnerable than in most other countries.

Since Kohli made his last Test ton, only one Indian batsman (min 5 innings) from positions 3 to 7 averages over 30: Rishabh Pant, with an average of 46.07 that includes a hundred and four fifties, three of them above 80.

Rahane is the only other centurion from the middle order, but take out that excellent Melbourne hundred and Rahane’s average drops from 28 to 23. With a sample size of nearly 20 innings, it’s probably only fair that India look for other options at this stage. To top it all off, England has seen Rahane’s worst: he averages 29.52 in the country in 22 innings, his worst anywhere in Test cricket. Hanuma Vihari, the other alternative, has also not nailed down his spot and his recent county stint, which didn’t go down as well as India would have liked, further dents his chances in the XI.

Rahul’s case, not just built up by his hundred against a rookie bowling attack, is more out of his ability as an all-format batsman, capable of switching gears if needed. When his Test career came to a grinding halt in 2019, Rahul had gone 22 innings with just one fifty-plus score. That solitary knock was a resounding fourth innings 149 against England in the final Test of the 2018 summer at The Oval.

In 12 innings after that, Rahul didn’t pass fifty and looked out of sorts with his technique and down on confidence. He was rightly dropped after the West Indies series in 2019. Two years since then, his only appearance in first-class cricket came in the Ranji Trophy semi-final in 2020 for Karnataka, making 26 and 0 opening the batting.

However, in the meantime, he has successfully switched to a middle-order role in ODI cricket, nailing down the problematic spot for India at No.5. It isn’t far-fetched to imagine him thriving in a similar role in the Test side, although the format demands a completely different skillset.

The advantage of having Rahul in the middle-order is manifold. One, India could push Rishabh Pant up to No.5 if needed, giving Virat Kohli more cushion to settle down and get into his innings while Pant puts pressure on the opposition. Secondly, having three aggressive, yet very different, batsmen in the middle-order in Rahul, Pant and Jadeja should help India’s scoring rate and force the opposition onto their plan B.

Rahul at No.6, not only separates the two left-handers, but also gives a cushion against the second new ball, given his experience as opener.

Many things contributed to Rahul’s failures in Test cricket: a technical flaw that led to a series of nine dismissals to either bowled or LBW in England and West Indies, the fact that his rough patch came at a time India were on an overseas touring spree and the abundance of backup top-order options the team had at the time. While it was an extended run of poor form, the fact that he once reeled off 10 fifty-plus scores in 14 innings – and averaged in the mid-40s before his lean run – is evidence of Rahul’s ability in this format.

With most of India’s middle-order going through a tough time, going back to Rahul in a new role might not be the worst move. After all, his last two long format innings in English soil are hundreds.

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