Competition at the top buoys India, but time is ticking

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India’s opener conundrum is far from sorted

India are approaching their penultimate 50-over game before the start of their ICC Champions Trophy title defence in England in June, and finding the right combinations in some departments of the line-up remains a work-in-progress. Competition for spots is the sign of a forward-progressing team setup, but the lack of games between now and the showpiece event could leave the holders in a spot of bother.
That India have had four different openers – Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan – playing over the last six ODIs (Five vs New Zealand, one vs England) suggests the openers’ combination is yet to be settled on. With Dhawan and Rahul suffering injuries during the Tests against New Zealand, the ODI series was the best chance for Rahane to nail down his top-order spot after having a start-stop sort of an ODI career where he has played both as an opener and through the middle-order. Rahane, however, failed to capitalise and finished with series stats of 143 runs at an average of 28.60.
Rohit’s surgery delayed his return to the side, potentially giving rest of the three to present their case in the England ODI series. And that’s perhaps where Virat Kohli’s decision-making was of paramount importance. The new full-time captain had three options at his disposal, but what was the best possible manner to deal with them? Does Rahane deserve another go after underwhelming numbers against New Zealand? Is Dhawan the way forward considering his previous ODI outing before the series was way back in January 2016? What happens when first-choice opener Rohit Sharma regains fitness? – there were questions galore for Kohli to answer before the tour, but he chose to remain upbeat about the situation, and saw merits in each of his options.
“Situations always change in cricket, specially where a cricketer stands as far as his form, or performances are concerned. A player like Shikhar… everyone is aware of his ability. We try to keep someone like Shikhar in a very good head space. Because once he’s cleared his head, he can really take the game from the opposition.
“Knowing the kind of player Shikhar is, and the kind of person he is, it is better to leave a guy like that to his own planning and own thinking, rather than giving your plans to him. Because he’s so instinctive, once he gets going, he just finds more options than anyone else. Once he’s in the game, he has momentum, I’ve seen guys really struggling to bowl to him when he’s in full flow.”
“Jinx (Rahane) is coming back from an injury as well, he’s batted well in the one-day warm-up match. KL has been playing well for a while, he’s coming off almost a double hundred in Chennai. I am happy that all three are in a good space now having had some runs behind them,” Kohli had said in the pre-series press conference on January 14.
The chronology of events before and after Kohli’s vote of confidence in Dhawan makes the decision-making even tougher for India. Dhawan returned to the squad after injury and straightaway made an impact in the first warm-up fixture on January 10, where he scored a fairly fluent 63. It was an intriguing coincidence that on January 12, when Dhawan came out to bat among the first batch in practice at the MCA stadium in Pune, Ajinkya Rahane scored an 83-ball 91 in the second warm-up match in Mumbai, and led the team to a victory. If the argument in favour of Dhawan was that he made a positive return, wouldn’t it be true about Rahane too? Or did Rahane’s failure to perform in the New Zealand series go against him? The questions only piled up.
When the second batch of batsmen like Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav went through their paces on January 12, Dhawan chose to work on his technique away from the nets. He had a net bowler underarm the ball to him, while he practiced his drive. There was also concentration on perhaps trying to keep his foot movements in check before he would face the delivery. This special attention was reminiscent of what he did in the conditional camp ahead of the New Zealand Test series, when he had Sanjay Bangar reviewing his back lift by placing a stump as a marker near the crease on the off-side.
Anil Kumble added to the top-order tussle by stating in no uncertain terms that Rahane was being looked at as an ‘option at the top of the order only’, putting an end to speculations on the possibility of a second wind in the middle-order for the Mumbai batsman.
On the following day, however, Dhawan took just throw downs and did some fielding drills while Rahane joined the group from Mumbai and batted in all the nets. Interestingly, Rahane was one of the four batsmen in an optional net session on the eve of the first ODI on January 14. Rahane took throwdowns for a good half hour and then spent 10 long minutes in conversation with Kumble who had watched the entire session of Rahane’s batting. All this while, there was uniformity in KL Rahul’s batting routines in the nets. He always batted in the first batch – alongside MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli on most occasions – providing a certain indication of where he stood in the pecking order.
Amongst the other two, Dhawan eventually got the nod ahead of Rahane for the first ODI, but his 10-ball struggle and the manner of dismissal brings about decision-making headache for the think tank once again. Ideally, one match is too small a sample size to make a judgement, but such is India’s schedule that there is hardly any room for leniency. In India’s optional nets on January 18, Rahane and Rahul got to bat beside Dhoni, raising question marks over Dhawan’s fate once again. But, there’s only so much that can be inferred from training session. Rahul took the pressure aspect out of the competition at the top, and opined that it made them aware of the realities and egged them on to work harder.
“Look, that’s what keeps us going and keeps us motivated. There are other guys capable enough to do the roles that have been given to us. That’s what wakes me up in the morning, to go and train harder and turn up for practice everyday and work harder on my skill and my game.
Because I know there are able enough and talented guys who are waiting in the bench to come and take my place. It’s a good place for a team to be in. We love the competition. We’ve never complained of competition or the pressure of other guys performing. We take it in a positive way,” Rahul said.
“It (the competition) doesn’t affect me and doesn’t bother me, and I don’t think it’s a headache for the coach and the captain as well. Players competing for the same spot will just motivate us more and help us to go out that and train harder. So it doesn’t really worry me. We just look to make all the opportunities count, and whoever does the job for the team will play in that slot.”
Problem of plenty is a trait commonly found in champion sides that boasts of riches in terms of talent and options. But with time ticking, the onus is on Kohli and India to use the available games well and zero in on the right combination in time for the Champions Trophy.

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