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Why Virat Kohli as opener could solve India’s T20I top-order muddle

Could Virat Kohli be the opener India need now?
by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

India’s cupboard for opening batsmen is overflowing with options, but the trick could lie in the skipper, Virat Kohli, moving to the top to play to a set template.

After three T20Is in the series against England, India have tried three different opening combinations, ironically after the skipper was forthright when asked about India’s opening conundrum on the eve of the first match. Three games into the series, England’s excellent tactical ploys have brutally rumbled Kohli’s bluff.

“He [KL Rahul] will continue to be one of our main players along with Rohit at the top of the order,” Kohli said in the post-match presentation after the third T20I, assured and unstirred as ever. But if you have heard promises from the skipper and this management over the last few years, you’d know they are barely anything more than words.

The truth is, India have an issue at the top, one that is tied with their general approach to the format, one that they fail to acknowledge. It’s why jaws gaped wide open as much at the move to promote Ishan Kishan to open in the second T20I as at the strokes he played during his sparkling knock. That thinking, giving an unproven but explosive young talent the chance to set the tone of an innings, is not something you’d expect from this Indian team.

Despite the roaring success of the move, with Rohit’s rest over it took India little time for India to revert and reinstate familiar names at the top. Right now, aside from the fact that seven of India’s top eight (from the third T20I) have opened the batting at least once in T20s, there’s a quandary surrounding match-ups that India might only be realising now in this series.

Shikhar Dhawan was undone by high pace, Rohit has a long-standing issue with leg-spin and high pace, and Rahul, arguably embezzled of his wizardry in T20 cricket by the steady approach encouraged in this Indian side, looks lost. It makes India’s openers an easy target in the powerplay overs – England tackled the right-handers with Adil Rashid and used high pace from both ends when Kishan, a terrific spin hitter, was moved up.

This is why, despite him being one of the greatest white-ball No.3s in history, it’s worth considering pushing Virat Kohli to the top, without him having to navigate completely away from the approach they follow. Kohli is one of those rare, top-notch batsmen with little weakness against any one particular type of bowler. His dismantling of England’s best bowler on the night, Mark Wood, on Tuesday is an indication of how he is different from the typical Indian batsman in handling high pace and bounce.

India don’t have the batting depth to go all England or West Indies in their T20 approach, neither do they need to given that their bowling is good enough to defend par totals on its day. But with an overdose of anchors clustered together at the top, incidentally all right-handers, India have handicapped themselves, with opposition sides content that they can attack, knowing India are unlikely to get off to a flier. It feels like India’s best side only has two of Rohit, Rahul and Kohli in the top three, with a difficult decision avoided in the past by ‘rotating’ and ‘resting’ players.

One option is to push Rahul down the order, and pit him against Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav for the No.4 slot, a role he has taken to well in ODIs. Kohli at the top followed by the likes of Kishan, Pant, Hardik and whoever wins that three-fold anchor race makes for an interesting, varied batting line-up in that the strengths are divided as are the left-right batting combinations, except at the top.

Kohli has opened with success before, most notably in his biggest IPL season in 2016. That year he scored 973 runs – more than anyone else has ever managed at a single edition – averaging 81 at a strike-rate of 152, with four centuries. Kohli’s strike-rate in T20s is over 140 across his entire career at the top of the order. At No.3, he strikes at 131.

But it’s more than just about mere numbers. There’s an argument that the set gameplan opening the innings provides might suit his approach as well.

Kohli’s T20I record is an interesting one. He averages over 80 in run-chases and mid-30s in the first innings (in all T20s, it is 35 and 49 in the first and second innings respectively). In ODIs, it is 68.08 in the second and 49.9 in the first. He is obviously excellent in either innings, but the difference in average is perhaps an indication of how Kohli likes to have a target in the distance and move towards it rather than judging and adjusting as he goes.

Take for instance his knock in the third T20I. After his first 26 balls, Kohli had the fifth worst strike-rate for any of his knocks in this format facing as many balls according to CricViz. That, of course, changed dramatically in the last half when he went all swagger and blasted at over 20 runs per over off his last 10 balls. But that start could have cost India on another day if he couldn’t kick on. Arguably, with England cruising home on the back of a Jos Buttler masterclass, it still did. Instead from the top, he gets to set a template by protecting wickets, something he is better at than most in this format as evidenced from his inflated average, and set the pace.

Kohli likes to ensure the team has security – evident from the team’s approach in the format, his captaincy decisions and player selections – and when opening the batting, he, possibly the one batsman in the side immune to match-ups, gets to set the template that the middle order, overflowing with firepower, can take advantage of. He’s done it before, and as left-field as it seems, it sorts a few problems that have cropped up after a few games against an excellent T20I side.

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