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Will Virat Kohli’s move to T20I opener stick?

by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

Virat Kohli pushed himself to the top of the batting order in the most recent T20I India played and continued with the move in the IPL for RCB. But, will that continue?

Before the T20I series against England, Virat Kohli declared Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul as the frontrunners for the opening slots, but in the first three matches of the series, India ended up playing different opening pairs with Rohit Sharma (injured until the third game), Shikhar Dhawan, Ishan Kishan and KL Rahul all fielded up top.

For the fifth and final T20I, Kohli walked out to open with Rohit and put on a 94-run stand inside nine overs. The skipper declared after the game that he would open in the upcoming IPL season, too.

“I am going to open in the IPL as well. Have batted in different positions in the past. But I feel we have a solid middle order now. Will definitely like to partner Rohit at the top. Other guys feel a lot more confident when one of us is still in and is set,” Kohli said in the post-match presentation ceremony.

The move made a lot of sense considering the options India had in the middle-order. Suryakumar Yadav had stepped in seamlessly and with Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Hardik Pandya and Ishan Kishan available to fill middle-order slots, Kohli was better used upfront where he could set the pace of the innings and importantly start off against the new, hard ball. It was a role he had fulfilled successfully in the 2016 IPL, his best ever season in the competition to date.

The only question mark around this move involved his partner, Rohit Sharma. Both ODI batting giants, Rohit and Kohli aren’t exactly the ideal openers to have in modern day T20 cricket. Both prefer to start steadily before letting loose once settled and have similar weaknesses against spin. All in all, it was a template that had a few drawbacks. It was swept under the carpet as the duo smashed Jofra Archer and Mark Wood in the final T20I with Adil Rashid, a good match up for both, successfully negated.

However, things took a dramatic turn in the IPL season.

Firstly, Shikhar Dhawan romped back into contention with a spectacular season (until it ended abruptly) where he showed intent and power in the first six overs, something India have sorely missed in the powerplays of recent T20Is. Secondly, Kohli had middling returns as an opener despite his partner, Devdutt Padikkal showing remarkable game awareness to tackle the powerplay head on. And finally, Rohit went through another season where his strike-rate got stuck in the 127-128 bracket. Rahul’s strike-rate improved, only because of his ability to shift gears later in an innings.

As they head into the T20 World Cup selection debate, India have four candidates including Kohli for that opening slot with Kishan no longer in the picture after a difficult season saw him dropped by Mumbai midway through. An outside bet is someone like Prithvi Shaw, who showed he could own the powerplay overs with his freewheeling approach.

The issue, though, is it appears that the first-choice opener now is Dhawan. Despite being on a decline a couple of years back, Dhawan has made a remarkable metamorphosis to fit the requirements of a modern day T20 opener.

While he has lost out to Rahul in the recent past, the Punjab Kings skipper has a template rather similar to Rohit and India cannot afford to have two of that kind at the top with another of those walking in at No.3.

With Dhawan nearly a lock now, Rohit, Kohli and Rahul, the trio that were expected to fill in slots 1-3 in the T20 World Cup during the England series, are fighting for two spots and only one of them bats in the middle-order in T20s. Rohit is too big a name for India to leave out before a tournament as big as this and it’d be quite uncharacteristic of them to do so.

Opening the batting is still Kohli’s ideal spot, but it can’t come alongside Rohit where teams could target the duo with spinners early on. If Kohli is to open with Dhawan, or Rahul for that matter, it’d leave Rohit to sit out, a move that’s fraught with risk simply because Rohit is still a match-winner in his own right and the middle-order, while exceptional on paper, could still be vulnerable to quality pace bowling in the middle overs, a trend in T20s now. It’s time to possibly backtrack on their planning a bit and it’s only fair to do so given how Dhawan has stormed back into the mix.

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