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Cricket: Team India needs to define KL Rahul's role in the team

Making Rahul move up and down the order so regularly is not beneficial for him, or the team. At a time when India are tinkering with more than one position in the middle order, Rahul’s success should be used to plug at least one gap. If the team doesn’t think he is a long-term option as an opener, then the most elegant solution would be to nail him down at No. 4.

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Last Updated: Jan 19, 2020, 11.40 PM IST
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By Anand Vasu

The Dhoni! Dhoni! Dhoni! chants were incongruous, reverberating around the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, even as the Jharkhandi was half a country away, readying to make a return to competitive cricket. They were directed at KL Rahul, unfairly, after Kuldeep Yadav had beaten an advancing Steve Smith, only for the ball to ricochet off pad and evade the keeper. The replay on the big screen showed just how unfair it was to blame Rahul, Virat Kohli pointed to the Bangalore boy and the crowd changed its tune, chanting Rahul! Rahul! Rahul!

This summed up the kind of rollercoaster ride Rahul has been on with the Indian team in the recent past. At the World Cup, Rahul batted and No. 4 and No. 6 before opening the batting. In this three-match series, he made 47 at No. 3 in the Mumbai match and 80 at No. 5 in Indore before being forced to open in Bangalore, after Shikhar Dhawan was injured while fielding.

It is one thing that Rahul has largely been good enough to adapt to different positions, but, in the long run, it doesn’t benefit either the individual or the team to deal with this level of uncertainty. While flexibility is a must in any team sport, as the injury to Dhawan underscored, role definition and clarity only help players grow and teams to become stronger. Add to this the fact that Rahul has been entrusted with the big gloves, and here is a cricketer who has much on his plate. When he stood in for Rishab Pant, Rahul did more than enough as wicketkeeper. But, when the team management decided to play Rahul as keeper in Bangalore, even with Pant available for selection, having completed the concussion protocols that he had to undergo, here was another change in direction.

Just recently, in an interview to India Today, Ravi Shastri, made it clear that the team management was looking seriously at Rahul as a wicketkeeping option. “It is an absolute option. You got to see where your strength is. If tomorrow there are a couple of guys in the middle order who are firing with unbelievable innings in the IPL. IPL will be agood judging ground. If you feel a guy who can multi-task can be used at the top because there’s some firepower at the back who are doing extremely well, then why not?” said Shastri. “That’s what you need. You need people who are doing two things at a time. Gone are the days when you only played as a batsman, then you got to be a Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma. Even they are excellent in the field. You got to have two departments if not more to be able to play white-ball cricket.”

But, if Rahul is going to keep wickets in white-ball cricket on a semi-permanent basis, then there will come a need for him to train differently, especially on the physical aspect, as the repetitive action of squatting, rising with the ball, and then completing an action places a strain on different muscle groups and different parts of the body than fielding elsewhere.

Add to this the fact that Pant is looked at as the next big thing in Indian cricket, albeit for his batting rather than his work behind the stumps, and there is definite need for clear communication from the think tank. As it is Sanju Samson doesn’t know whether he is coming or going, and whether he needs to do more to get a decent run, and, of course, there is the unanswerable question around MS Dhoni’s future. It is assumed that Dhoni will be looking to show what he has in the Indian Premier League, and based on this a call would be taken over whether he is to come back for one final hurrah in the Twenty20 World Cup.

If indeed that is the plan, where does this leave Pant and Rahul? The potential of Pant is clear to all who watch him bat, but the pitfalls of his wicketkeeping, where he might fluff a crucial half chance, leaves the team with a judgment call to make in his case. As far as Rahul is concerned, it should be much simpler. After all, he has done all that has been asked of him, batting with growing polish and touch in white-ball cricket, and keeping wickets without drawing attention to himself.

At a time when India are tinkering with more than one position in the middle order, Rahul’s success should be used to plug at least one gap. If the team doesn’t think he is a long-term option as an opener, then the most elegant solution would be to nail him down at No. 4.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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