Is Rahul taking Surya’s spot in India’s ODI XI?

On a day India racked up 373, it feels amiss to be talking about their batting but since this is an ODI World Cup year, a potential puzzle needs resolving. It can be phrased in a couple of ways: How to fit Suryakumar Yadav or Ishan Kishan in the playing XI?

It will come down to untangling the logjam that exists in the team; to accommodate Surya, a couple of other pieces will have to be untangled. The Indian think-tank might view it as unnecessary now but as we have seen in recent World Cups, the team that dares wins. Punts have to be taken, courage shown, to push the team further to win trophies.

With Shreyas Iyer high up in the pecking order, scoring consistently, Surya can’t be a straight swap for anyone else in the team. The decision-makers would have to take out two pieces to get him in. If KL Rahul, who in the past three years has been consistent in ODIs and averages 43.87 at a strike rate of 88.53 at No. 5, continues his iffy current form, he may offer a door for entry.

But since he is the wicketkeeper and especially with Rishabh Pant likely to be in rehab for a long time, Kishan will have to come in. And then the pressure racks up on Shubman Gill to up his game and keep performing at a higher level. Else, Kishan moves up to the opener’s spot, and Surya comes in at No.6. With Kishan, the left-handed option also enters the debate.

Rahul played 10 ODIs in 2022, managing only 251 runs, including two fifties. One of them came while opening the innings against South Africa in Paarl, and the other at No. 5 against Bangladesh in Mirpur. He is averaging 27.88 at a strike rate of 80.19.

So, the man under most pressure will be Rahul. Since this is a World Cup year, the focus will be on the here and now; he can’t afford to slip up. If 50-over cricket is an extension of the T20 format, Surya should be India’s No. 5, not Rahul.

Rahul made a 29-ball 39 on Tuesday against Sri Lanka in Guwahati, but couldn’t get the boundaries flowing and fell in the 41st over, bowled round his legs off a slower one from Kasun Rajitha. He will rue the fact that he missed out on a belter of a track against a pedestrian attack. One couldn’t help but think of Surya or even Kishan at that stage; the difference between 373 and 400.

Pushing the horizon

The brand of white-ball that Rohit Sharma’s team has been aspiring to master for the past one year comes naturally to Surya, India’s only Mr. 360 batsman. His batting technique is made to order for a No. 5 in ODIs. With four anchors – Rohit , Gill, Virat Kohli and Iyer – in the top four, he is the one who can take on the bowlers from the word go and shift the momentum. He can not only hit those “out-of-this-world strokes” (as head coach Rahul Dravid raved about him) but can also manipulate the field easily and pick those gaps.

Another way to look at this situation is to ponder whether India also view Rahul as a sponge to soak up a batting collapse? Even if he isn’t in great form, he is the Test opener after all and probably more equipped than Kishan for that role. But considering the World Cup is in Indian conditions, that reasoning doesn’t hold up on scrutiny. It’s his past performances that have given him the role and he has to find a way to get to his supreme best if he has to resist the pressure from the contenders.

The second player who can suddenly feel the pressure on him will be Gill. If Kishan comes in, even for Rahul first, he will be pushing Gill. And if Rahul scores and Gill fails, Kishan can return to knock on Gill’s door. Both Gill and Rahul can’t afford any mess-ups.

Especially if such large totals are going to be the norm in India, India will automatically be forced to scale up their ambition on what’s a decent target to set or how to equip themselves to chase down mammoth totals. Clearly, no link in the team can be weak if they are to progress in global tournaments.

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