This isn’t really a game of musical chairs but the chatter around India’s opening pair for the T20 World Cup has only gained momentum. Ever since Virat Kohli scored those 122 runs against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup as an opener, and with KL Rahul not having had an ideal comeback from injury, the Rahul versus Kohli for the second opener has become the latest debate on the eve of the India-Australia T20 series that kicks off here on Tuesday.
Skipper Rohit Sharma clarified on Sunday that Rahul will be his preferred opening partner with Kohli the backup opener for the tournament in Australia starting next month. But Rahul does seem under pressure as the team wants him to score big and score at a brisk pace as well beginning this series. What will help him is how Rahul will be on familiar turf at the PCA Stadium here, having played for and led the Punjab IPL team (then Kings XI Punjab). And these could be the best conditions to bat for any opening batter in T20s.
Talking about his strike-rate issues in T20, Rahul, the India vice-captain who had only played in the Zimbabwe ODIs before coming into the Asia Cup after a long lay-off following surgery for sports hernia, said: “It is something that I am working on—the roles that have been defined for each player in the last 10-12 months have been very clear and everyone is working towards it. I am just working on improving myself as an opening batter, and how I can have an impact for my team whenever I go out to bat.”
On his injury return captaining India against Zimbabwe, he could not deliver the goods with the bat. In the Asia Cup, his scores were 0, 36, 28 and 6 before he scored 62 in the final game against Afghanistan, sharing a 119-run opening stand with Kohli (122*).
In his 61 T20Is, Rahul has a strike rate of 140.91 while Kohli’s strike rate is marginally lower (138.37). In the Asia Cup, Rahul aggregated 132 runs.
He is backed by skipper Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid, though Rahul knows he will have to take on an attacking route, with India playing six T20s against Australia and South Africa before leaving for the World Cup.
“No one is perfect, everybody is working towards something and obviously strike-rates are taken on an overall basis. You never see when a batter has played at a certain strike rate, whether it was important for him to play at 200 strike rate or whether the team could have still won with him playing at 120-130. These are the things no one analyses,” Rahul said.
“There can be criticism for many things. But the most important thing for a player is what his captain, coach and teammates think of him in the dressing room. Only we know what role is expected of each player. Everyone is trying to give their best, but not everyone can succeed in each game. It is the kind of environment we have created where players are not scared to commit mistakes or fail.”
Australia, the defending T20 world champions, would be looking to exploit any uncertainty within the Indian top-order and go hard them. Australia though have rested a number of senior players with David Warner, all-rounder Marcus Stoinis and Mitchell Marsh and fast bowler Mitchell Starc having stayed back home.
Australia skipper Aaron Finch said the series will be used to tune up for the title defence. “Every decision that we make has one eye on the World Cup. Seeing the wicket yesterday, it looked like there was a bit of grass on the pitch.”
Australia recently played New Zealand in ODIs at home and swept the three-match series.
Finch dismissed any doubts over Kohli’s impact. “It will take a very brave man to write Virat Kohli off. At any stage, he has shown for 15 years now that he is one of the greatest players of all time. Particularly in T20 cricket, he’s someone who has developed and grown his game over such a long period that you always plan and prepare the best when you’re coming up against him.”