India’s planning for the 2019 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup has been meticulous in every detail, beginning almost the moment they succumbed to a Steve Smith century at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the semi-final four years ago.
Every series since then has been a stepping-stone towards this tournament; every decision made with a view to winning back the trophy MS Dhoni lifted at the Wankhede Stadium in 2011, sending a nation into raptures.
And yet, despite all this, Virat Kohli’s side begin their campaign against South Africa on 5 June with uncertainty still surrounding the pivotal No.4 position.
It’s not for the want of trying. 12 batsmen have filled the role in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup, with none making a decisive claim to it. Ambati Rayudu appeared to be in pole position – he averages 42.18 in 14 innings at No.4 over the last four years – until a disappointing home series against Australia in March led to him being cut from the squad entirely.
When that squad was announced, MSK Prasad, chairman of the Indian selection committee, nominated a ‘lucky 13th’ player, Vijay Shankar, to fill the position, despite the all-rounder having only played nine ODIs and never batted higher than No.5 for his country in the 50-over format.
The headache continued, however, when Shankar was hit on the forearm while batting in the nets and subsequently forced to sit out India’s first warm-up fixture against New Zealand. He returned for the next match against Bangladesh, but could only manage 2, batting at No.5.
Unfortunately for Shankar, he may now have missed his opportunity, for the time being at least, with K.L. Rahul now emerging as the favourite to slot in between Kohli and Dhoni against South Africa.
Rahul has been briefly tried at No.4 without success – playing two ODIs against Sri Lanka in 2017 and two in England last year with a high score of 17 – but a characteristically elegant hundred in that second warm-up against Bangladesh has thrust him firmly into the reckoning, with Kohli describing his innings as India’s “biggest positive” to take from the match.
While admitting that the No.4 role is unfamiliar and will require him to adapt, Rahul says the opportunity to bat in that position has not come as a surprise. In fact it’s been years in the making.
“Look, it’s not something that I’ve done growing up. I’ve always batted at the top of the order and that’s where I feel most comfortable. But with these three [Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli] scoring the number of runs they have in the last four or five years, it’s just so hard to find a spot,” says the 27-year-old in an ICC exclusive interview.
“The middle order is something I’ve spoken to people about. I’ve been working on it for the last couple of years. It was a role that was given to me a few years ago and the support staff and the captain asked me to work on it.
“For me it was important that I spoke to players like MS, like Virat, who bat in the middle order, and see what changes I’ll have to make with my game, or what is important to be successful in the middle order,” he adds.
Rahul appears to have taken that advice on board, stroking 12 fours and four sixes in his 108 at Cardiff against Bangladesh. “He can get the scoreboard ticking and you saw that – a great example of the skillset he has,” said Kohli.
A thoughtful player who has been touted as a possible future Indian captain, Rahul says he has been imagining how he would play the situation at No.4, even when he hasn’t been batting in that position.
“Even during the IPL and during other games in the middle I’ve tried to visualise or give myself a target of what I would do if I was batting at No.4. There are a few things that I’ve worked on and fingers crossed they come off.
“The most important thing, wherever you bat, is the first 20 balls. If the first 20 balls go your way then everything gets back to normal, you feel comfortable and then I can start playing my natural game. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing at five, six, one or two. It remains the same. The first 20, 25 balls are crucial, and that’s something that I’ve worked on,” Rahul says.
Rahul was 18 at the time of India’s World Cup win in 2011, having made his first-class debut five months earlier. He says that victory was a pivotal moment in his career – the moment when he decided to get serious.
“I can remember the match very clearly. When it was over it was absolute chaos. The roads were blocked, everybody left their homes, they were on the road celebrating. It was just an unbelievable experience to see so many people who had forgotten about their worries or whatever they had going on in their lives. They were just so happy that India had won the World Cup. It gave so much joy.
“For me as a youngster watching that, it did make me want to take my cricket more seriously, and for me to become more disciplined with my life. I knew what a World Cup can do to the country and how valuable it is. A switch went off in me and I just got really serious with my cricket. To be here after eight years, representing the country, means the world to me. It’s a dream come true,” Rahul explains.
After three years on the fringes of India’s ODI side, Rahul may have flicked another switch at just the right moment, timing his run for the problematic No.4 berth perfectly. After four years of searching, could India have finally found the missing piece in their jigsaw? Courtesy: www.cricketworldcup.com