Mayank Agarwal’s arrival shouldn’t impact KL Rahul’s opening slot

Ravindra Jadeja. Ambati Rayudu. Mayank Agarwal. What is common among these three names?

Well, not much, barring they set social media abuzz this past week. Usually, Indian cricket inspires a whole of debates and arguments everywhere and at any given time, with social media always the best indicator of all this incessant chatter. Never mind that the Men in Orange lost to England and then the Men in Blue beat Bangladesh within three days, those three names kept the off-field chatter going.

Of the three, online jabbing and retiring in huff aren’t nearly as important as Agarwal’s inclusion in the Indian World Cup squad. On the face of it, this selection doesn’t make sense. He is an ODI rookie, albeit made quite an impression on debut in Australia. He was not even a part of the experimental road to the World Cup, with Ajinkya Rahane tried as third-option opener (against West Indies and Australia in 2017). ALSO READ: Mayank has always dreamt of playing in the World Cup: Coach RX Muralidhar

Further perplexing was the team management’s requirement – for a top-order batsman. Rayudu was out, Rahane not considered – how did Agarwal enter into this consideration ahead of them? He is an opener, yes. He has also batted in the middle order during many Indian Premier League seasons, yes. How does it help Indian selection though? ALSO READ: India ride their luck to seal semi-final passage, with big help from Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah

The answer is KL Rahul, in the weirdest way possible.

As he leapt up at long on to attempt catching Jonny Bairstow’s six on Sunday, the first thought was he shouldn’t really be doing that. Rahul has long had injury issues, which happen at the worst of times, and it was a worry when he walked off the field clutching his lower back. He didn’t come out to field again and got out for a disappointing duck thereafter as India lost. ALSO READ: Injuries and brittle middle order threaten to undo India ahead of semi-finals

Was the Agarwal call a SOS in case anything should happen to Rahul? Perhaps, but there is also additional thinking herein.

India’s batting line-up is in a state of flux that it has never experienced in years. The middle order is struggling, an understatement really, and the batting strength is completely pivoted on Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. A little lower down, Hardik Pandya is struggling to absorb the finishing pressure, with Rishabh Pant only just stepping in to allay some of it in the Bangladesh game.

Tuesday was a vital marker from that point of view. Pant’s runs in the middle were soothing, but it was Rahul who made sure India didn’t falter after winning the toss and opting to bat. Getting that start with Rohit and adding 180 runs helped India track their perennial ODI template – bat deep and build the innings through the middle overs, providing a flourish in the death overs.

The end was a huff and puff, but Rahul was the glue at the top of the order. While Rohit was fluent again (especially after that dropped catch), his partner didn’t let things go for a change. When on song, Rahul is a sight to behold – his feet move well, he is in position early to judge the length, and times the ball to perfection. He is a proper T20 era batsman, having assimilated qualities from all three formats into his batting and scoring technique.

But that conjunction can be jarring at times, and mostly it results in moments of gross misjudgement. At times, Rahul is seen in two minds, and his shot selection borders on surprising – like he has two strokes for a ball, just unsure which one to play, and ends up playing a mix of both. It is ugly to watch and impacts his run of form.

Just roll back the pages, and you will see his half-century against Pakistan was followed by odd scores of 30 and 48 against Afghanistan and West Indies. “A bit disappointing,” is how he had described this sudden happenstance.

Rahul had got starts in both those innings, and then his shot selection went awry. It was a disappointment not just from a personal view, but also from the team’s viewpoint. It was no coincidence that India struggled to put up reasonable scores against those two sides. Further, it was also no coincidence that India crossed 300 in both innings wherein he had scored a half-century ever since Shikhar Dhawan got injured.

And this is where comparisons ring in further. Dhawan, and Rohit, both have perfected the art of playing long and making their starts count. Why, the latter’s hundred against Bangladesh is an optimal example. After that dropped catch, he didn’t give the opposition a whiff until he had a three-figure score against his name. Rahul needs to achieve similar levels of consistency if he is to have any shot at permanently sewing up an opener’s spot at the head of this batting line-up.

That, though, is thinking ahead for the future. In the present context, that half-century couldn’t have come at a better time. Yes, Agarwal is here in Leeds and his presence will always allow for the temptation to chop and change should the need arise. But World Cups are won by consistency.

In Rahul, the Indian team management invested as their third-choice opener and middle order batsman (if Dhawan were available). With constant shuffling up and down the order, he has struggled to get going. Even so, after that half-century against Bangladesh, it doesn’t make sense to move him down again whatever the situation. India need to back their decision of trusting Rahul with this responsibility for the semi-final ahead.