Ishan Kishan proves he belongs in an ‘intentful’ India

Ishan Kishan proves he belongs in an ‘intentful’ India

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ESPN Cricinfo/ Associated Press


Ishan Kishan received raucous applause from the Indian balcony after reaching his fifty

India’s selection conundrum was slated to finally reach an amicable conclusion at the Asia Cup with the return of regulars Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul. However, Ishan Kishan showed he has other plans as he once again made the most of his opportunities in what could be a career-defining innings.

The spotlight has hardly ever been kind to Ishan Kishan. He was first thrust to the national conscience’s forefront as captain of the Indian U-19 team that rode along all the way to the final in 2016. Yet, Kishan’s personal tally read a sorry 73 from six innings, an unfortunate loss of form given the prowess he showcased before and after the tournament.

Wherever Kishan aimed to belong, he was pushed to the shadows by some freak of nature. His birth in Jharkhand alone is a testament to that, a state where a certain MS Dhoni is worshipped as no less than divine. His next big opportunity to thrive came at Mumbai Indians where he again had to contend with Rohit Sharma rapidly scaling the charts to cement himself as one of India’s greatest white ball openers in their century-old history. When Kishan began to grow into his own and show glimpses of sneaking some past his senior colleague, a wild Suryakumar Yadav appeared out of the blue to become the new darling of the Mumbai Paltan.

Once consistent performances allowed Kishan to fight for a spot in the Indian team in the wake of Shikhar Dhawan’s decline, young phenom Shubman Gill made himself known to the world as the next big thing in cricket. Even a record-breaking double century in ODIs proved not to be enough for Kishan – he was just the seventh player to achieve the feat in the 13 years since Sachin Tendulkar first breached the mark, yet Gill had managed to replicate it in less than 40 days after Kishan's triumph. Funnily enough, it was Kishan who had been pushed down to four in the game to accommodate Gill at the top of the order.

Yet, over the years, Kishan has continued to work quietly behind the scenes and with his trademark nonchalance managed to carve a space for himself in Indian hearts. But adulation can only take you so far in cricket while notable performances on the big stage can propel careers to new heights. Having missed out on selection for the World T20 last year despite being a favourite in the early stages, the 25-year-old looked set for another upset in the run-up to the ODI World Cup. Only this time, Kishan chose to take fate into his own hands.

The big break came when KL Rahul injured himself in the latter stages of the IPL, leaving Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson next in line to claim the wicket-keeper batter role. He first proved his credentials on sluggish pitches in the Caribbean, unusually similar to the kind found in the subcontinent, with three half-centuries on the trot to add to a fifty in his debut Test series. With Rahul’s rehabilitation still underway, Kishan ensured the possibility of him sneaking into the strongest line-up was raised in Indian minds as he made it to the Asia Cup squad.

However, Gill and Sharma seemed to be lock-ins as openers and the management was not willing to gamble with Kohli’s position a month before the World Cup. But Kishan did not seem built for the middle order – his average of almost 60 batting in the top-three including a double ton and five fifties slumped down to 21.20 at number four, featuring a solitary half-century. Yet, this was the only way for Kishan to proceed towards his World Cup dream.

As it played out, the first time Kishan batted at five in ODIs was in the Asia Cup opener. Kishan had also never been a part of the India-Pakistan spectacle before and neither had he ever come up against the devastating pace trio of Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, and Haris Rauf. On any other day, these ingredients alone would have been enough for a perfect storm but on Saturday, this was just the beginning of Kishan’s misery. He came out to bat at 48/3 in dreadfully overcast conditions with the shiny Kookaburra hooping around like a wild snake let loose after a mongoose. Another wicket would potentially prove to be fatal for the Men in Blue. Kishan had to watch legends of the game Sharma and Kohli succumb to these very conditions while the otherwise flamboyant Gill was struggling on 6 after facing 21 deliveries at the other end.

However, if Kishan had the tendency to bow his head to adversity and undue pressure, he would never have made it this far in his career. On the seventh ball he faced, Kishan audaciously pulled the express Rauf for six effortlessly, indicating he was going to stay true to his natural game. The 25-year-old made sure his strike rate hovered around the 100 mark at all times as he picked his targets with clinical efficiency. Kishan made it a point not to let Shadab Khan settle, striking the former for two boundaries in the over after Gill returned to the pavilion. He skillfully milked Mohammad Nawaz before exploding with a six and a four in the last two overs.

Even while adopting this counter-attacking approach, Kishan never forced matters and showed restraint in his shot selection. Before this knock, Kishan averaged a maximum every 25 balls in his ODI career – he only cleared the fence twice against Pakistan, going 67 consecutive balls without a six in the middle of his innings. This paved the way for a game-changing 138-run partnership with Hardik Pandya, the fifth biggest for India for the fifth wicket or lower since 2016. Kishan’s 82 was also the ninth-highest score by an Indian batter at five or lower in the ongoing World Cup cycle, of which four belong to Rahul and three belong to Pandya.

A lot has been said about ‘intent’ in white-ball cricket by the Indian coaches and captains in the past few years. Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma have made sure to drill home the idea of adopting a fearless and attacking approach in batting with upcoming youngsters as the executors every time they’ve been in the vicinity of a microphone. Yet, it speaks volumes of Kishan’s unfortunate career trajectory that he stands vulnerable to being dropped once Rahul regains full fitness despite being the hallmark of such intent. Between overs 10 and 40, Kishan’s strike rate of 115-plus is the highest for any batter in the world to have faced at least 200 balls since the 2019 World Cup. Kishan is also a proven wicket-keeper and was excellent with the gloves in tricky Caribbean conditions keeping against two masters of the art in Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

Kishan always had the explosiveness but Saturday showed he also has the temperament to belong in the Indian ODI setup in whatever capacity the team desires. While he will likely have at least one more chance to further improve his case when India takes on Nepal on Monday, the ball is already in Sharma and Dravid’s court to place faith in the youngster for once.

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