Before the start of IPL 2016, KL Rahul would have been known as a Test specialist. A technically correct batsman who is suited to the longer format of the game would have been the thought of most Indian cricket fans about the right-hander.
Fast forward two months, and he is the talk of the town. The Karnataka lad followed up an impressive IPL season with Royal Challengers Bangalore with a debut hundred in the blue colours of India in the first ODI against Zimbabwe to become the first Indian in the history to score a ton on ODI debut.
Almost three years ago, another debut grabbed similar headlines in the Indian media. In the longer format of the game, Shikhar Dhawan, who was known to be a limited-over specialist, scored a memorable 183 against Australia at Mohali.
He smashed the Aussie bowlers all around the park at a strike rate of 107.47 to score the fastest debut century in Tests. Comparisons to Virendra Sehwag and talks about him as the future of Indian cricket were all in the air, but cut to 2016 and it is all a different story for the left-hander.
His inconsistent run across the formats have raised questions about his place in the team, and with Rahul emerging as a potential opener across the formats, Dhawan’s place in the Indian team could be in doubt.
But, before getting into the validity of Shikhar Dhawan’s in the Indian team, a few lines about Rahul’s rise from a Test specialist to limited-overs star is necessary.
IPL 2016 and Rahul’s emergence
Indian Premier League (IPL) has been the breeding ground of unknown stars, but KL Rahul was not a newbie to Indian cricket. The 24-year-old from Mangalore made his India debut in the December of 2014 in the boxing day Test match against Australia in Melbourne. If his ODI debut was memorable, then his Test debut was forgettable, to say the least.
After watching a 262-run partnership between Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane from the dressing room, Rahul walked out to bat after Rahane’s departure, and he looked out of place on the international arena during his brief stint. He scored 3 in the first innings and 1 in the second innings as the whole world waited to see whether he can live up to the first name he carried along with him. The answer would have been no at that time, but the right-hander bounced back, and scored a century at SCG in the next Test.
Despite that century in Australia, he played just three more Tests till date with Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay taking up the roles of the openers in the Indian team.
Even though his performance in the Test arena impressed everyone, none would have thought about him making it to the ODI team having seen the failure of another Test specialist—Cheteshwar Pujara. However, the arrival of IPL 2016 changed all that.
After two seasons at Sunrisers Hyderabad, Rahul moved to his hometown team Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2016. With RCB struggling with their wicketkeeping position, Rahul donned the gloves for the team, but it was his performances with the bat that caught the eye of everyone.
With Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers were accumulating runs for fun, Rahul the most underrated player in the RCB side. He scored 397 runs from 14 matches at an average 44.11 to finish as the third-highest run-scorer of the Bangalore side. That impressive run in the IPL helped him snatch a place on the plane to Zimbabwe, and the century in the first ODI only helped in enhancing his reputation.
So, is he ready to take Dhawan’s place in the Indian team?
Dhawan’s numbers tell a different story
Shikhar Dhawan has always been a topic of discussion among Indian cricket fans. The Delhi batsman has gone through different patches in his three-year international career, and he has held his place in the team even after poor runs—much to the ire of most of the Indian supporters. But, the numbers of the left-hander does not look as bad as the story suggests.
Dhawan has an average of 40.87 in Tests and 43.97 in ODIs, while his average in the shortest format of the game lie at a lowly 20.80. In fact, in 2016, when there have been calls to drop the 30-year-old after repeated failures, Dhawan has scored 588 runs in 19 international matches at an average of 34.58. Although this average is less than his career average, 14 of those 19 matches have been T20I. In the five ODIs that took place in January, the Delhi cricketer scored 287 runs at an average of 57.40, including a hundred against Australia in Australia. Apart from his T20 numbers, Dhawan’s records in the other two formats have been acceptable.
When Rahul was impressing one and all with his performances for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, Dhawan was silently accumulating runs for Sunrisers Hyderabad alongside his swashbuckling opening partner, David Warner.
It might come as a surprise to many, but the 30-year-old finished as the fourth-highest run-scorer in the IPL season with 501 runs from 17 matches, helping the Hyderabadi side lift their maiden IPL title. A look at the top 3 in the run-scorers list – Virat Kohli, David Warner, and AB de Villiers – will help us understand the value of Dhawan’s innings.
More than his position in the run-scorers table, it was his ability to play second fiddle to Warner that stood out. With Warner taking up the aggressor’s role, the Hyderabad side needed someone to anchor the innings and Dhawan did that expertly by putting his naturally aggressive game on the back burners. Men with weaker characters would have had faltered under the pressure that was put on him by media and the fans, but Dhawan showed a side of the game that very few knew existed.
Rahul’s memorable innings on debut has given India a very good option for the limited overs side. Even though he has scored a century, the Karnataka lad is still inexperienced in the ODI format, and needs a good number of games under his belt before he can replace Dhawan in the team. Although Dhawan’s form in the T20 games for India have been below par, his ODI and Test record have been respectable. Rahul will be the front-runner to replace Dhawan, when the batsman fails again, but it is too early to write off the southpaw.
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