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IND vs AUS: Under-pressure KL Rahul seals ODI world cup spot with a knock for ages

On Friday, at Wankhede in Mumbai, KL Rahul found himself walking out to stop a red-hot Mitchell Starc from taking a hattrick. The left-handed pacer who is always more venomous with the whiteball had curved in the ball at furious pace to knock out Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav. Wickets off the last two deliveries meant, Rahul had time to breath as Shubman Gill survived two close calls off Sean Abbott. Then as Rahul prepared to face the hat-trick ball, a hundred things must have buzzed his mind.

In many ways Rahul finds himself in a strange place. Unlike some of his younger colleagues, who have grown up with the increasing influence of T20s, and prefer batting in the same gear across all formats, Rahul is from the previous era, where ODIs still ruled the roost. He is constantly tinkering to find the right tempo across formats, and has occasionally been found wanting.

An opener all his playing career, made to play in the middle-order because there are way too many options at the top and one who is in the middle of a crisis with the bat. Having been shunted out of the national T20 set up for being not quick enough to get off the blocks in the powerplay, last fortnight he ended up losing his Test spot to Gill. The ODIs, in a way, are a lease of new life for Rahul.

He was up against Starc, one of the biggest bowling freaks going around. Alongside Shaheen Shah Afridi, he is a wizard in dishing out those unplayable deliveries straight up with the white ball. With Starc, there is no such thing for breathers for the batsmen. His natural angle and a pin-point yorker at disposal can trigger claustrophobia in a new batsman.

Now, Rahul had to replicate his celebration from his good times: that shutting out of the outside noise. Former players have been at him, fans have been baying for him, and rarely has a modern-day Indian player faced such heat as him in recent times.

Having already seen Kohli and Suryakumar undone by the incoming delivery — one that has troubled Rahul before – he didn’t commit to anything. Expecting an in-swinger, he could have easily been hesitant to put his front-foot across. Instead, he just stood still, and only when the line of the delivery was outside off, he began to move his feet and casually leaned into a gorgeous cover-drive to cream a boundary. Starc tried both the incoming delivery and the one with the angle, but Rahul was ready. When he is at his confident self, one shot to watch out for is the flashy square-cut to balls not that far from the off stump. A few such beauties flowed from him at Wankhede. And there were a couple of gasp-worthy hits against the legspin of Adam Zampa too – a lovely square-drive off the stretched front foot and a meaty blow, from the crease, over long-on.

In ODIs, with only seven months to go for the World Cup, Rahul has already ensured India cannot look past him in the middle-order and for the wicketkeeper slot. Since the time he started batting in the middle-order – since Australia’s previous tour to India in 2020 – Rahul is averaging 63.07 in 18 innings, with two centuries and seven fifties at a strike rate of 99.32.

And Rahul’s stock is only increasing, especially if one factors in the middle-order trouble. With Shreyas Iyer injured and with concerns about his availability, India’s middle-order suddenly finds itself a bit shaky. Suryakumar, a batter India’s think tank believed will adapt to all formats, hasn’t got going in ODIs. In a format where the No 4 has to be an enforcer, one who plays to the situation – to steady the team in case of early wickets or to drive home the advantage – Suryakumar is yet to show he can do both. While his aggressive approach and his ability to use the entire field of play is second to none, Suryakumar hasn’t played the sort of knock in ODIs where he has gradually shifted gears depending on the situation.

Unlike most other regular batsmen in the side, Suryakumar offers something unique in terms of finding boundaries early on in his innings. While such an approach has worked for him in T20s where he has been able to swap the pressure on the bowling side, in ODIs, bowlers and teams have overs to work around. Of course, his method could still work in ODIs, more so if he comes in the middle-overs, but the question is whether it can work if the team finds itself at 5/2 or 10/3.

Here is where India see a trump card in Rahul, as far as ODIs go. Having already pushed Rishabh Pant to the backseat, he has managed to keep even Ishan Kishan on the bench. While India had a ready-made option in Shubman Gill for Kishan, there is none beyond Rahul in the middle-order, who could also keep wickets.

Before rescuing India with the bat at the Wankhede, Rahul had a very fruitful day behind the stumps too, where he even dived full-length towards his left to collect a wide delivery off Mohammed Shami. He also dived to his right to catch Steve Smith, but more importantly on a seaming track looked comfortable behind the stumps. And who knows if he continues like this, even if in ODIs, he can well push for a Test middle-order spot as the wicketkeeper batsman in the WTC final in London.

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