KL Rahul hit 80 off 52 as he put pedal to metal. (PTI)
It’s hard to be Rahul in this country as there is too much to live up to. In the recent past, after losing out on a Test spot and not performing in pressure games in the World Cup, KL Rahul, whose compact game had fans salivating with Dravid comparison in his initial days, has done all he could to bounce back into public imagination. Can you open? How about No.3? Can you finish from lower-middle-order? Can you also keep, please?
In some sense, this was a repeat of the plea put to Dravid at one stage in his career.
On Friday, Rahul became the first Indian batsman since November 2013 to score a fifty with a strike rate of over 150 batting at No. 5 or lower when batting first – the effort propelled India from a par total to a very competitive 340 that helped them bounce back in the series.
That particular stat tells us how India have struggled to find a big-hitting allrounder in ODIs who has the hitting skills and the class to last long.
It also raised a wistful sigh about the possible lost opportunity in the World Cup semifinal. India could well have pushed Mayank Agarwal to open and had Rahul beef up the middle order but now that will be binned as one of the what-if-scenarios.
Back to the present. Rahul’s fireworks could well offer the middle-order balm that Indians were desperately looking for. Virat Kohli at No.3, Shreyas Iyer would hopefully stabilize and own that No.4 spot, leaving Rahul to accelerate and finish.
Behind the stumps, Rahul was quick to catch Finch out of his ground. (PTI)
The best part about Rahul’s game is his versatility – the shift from compactness to aerial-shots doesn’t feel like a transformation but almost natural and easy for him. Rahul ensured that India would loot 91 in the final 10 overs – the difference between win and loss. Even in his partnership with Kohli from 197 for 3, he had dominated, hitting 42 off the 78 runs. Kohli fell in his first attempt at big shot holing out at the boundary and when Manish Pandey fell, India were 287 in 45 overs.
Five overs remained but Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins had four of those. Rahul piled on Starc, who as ever went round the stumps in his final overs, flaying an attempted yorker to square boundary and slamming a length ball over extra-cover boundary.
In the 49th over, off Cummings, after being late on the pull by a fast bouncer, he upper cut the next ball – another bouncer – over third man. Cummings followed with a crunchy yorker but Rahul somehow managed to create space with his shuffle and clipped it to fine-leg boundary.
He contributed with the ‘keeping gloves too, stumping Aaron Finch off Ravindra Jadeja as India removed the two openers relatively early in the piece. David Warner’s dismissal too was earned with a great fielding effort, this time by Manish Pandey who leapt at cover point to bring down a powerfully-hit shot.
While Rahul finished off the job, it was Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, not to forget Rohit Sharma, who laid the foundation. Indian batting unit does look different when Sharma gets off to a start and this time both him and Dhawan didn’t take too much time to get going. By the time Sharma fell for 42 with India on 81 in the 14th over, Dhawan was well-set and kept the game moving forward in company of Kohli.
Dhawan had started with a classy straight driven four against Starc off the first ball he faced before he creamed Cummings through covers in the next over. He settled down thereafter, ticking the score along with the odd four here and there.
In the 25th over, bowled by Ashton Agar, he hit successive fours that once again kick-started the momentum shift. An aerial sweep was followed by a reverse version and Dhawan had begun to flow again. Agar started to feel the heat, and in his next over, Dhawan smoked him for a six over midwicket and crashed a short ball to fine-leg boundary – and Kohli was pleased as punch.
Indian players celebrate the dismissal of Australia's Steve Smith during the second one-day international cricket match between India and Australia in Rajkot, India, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
In the 29th, he swatted a slower one from Kane Richardson for a four to move to 96 but fell pulling a long hop to deep midwicket fielder – he would later say that he wasn’t aware that he was so close to the 100.
Kohli and Rahul steadied the innings after fall of Iyer, and in the 35th, Kohli pressed on with successive fours off Cummings – a swat-flick and cover drive to nearly-identical deliveries.
As Rahul took over the more domineering role, Kohli carried on until his first attempt at an aerial hit in the 44th over ended at long-on with Ashton Agar relaying the ball to Starc to complete the catch. Things could have turned dire at this stage but Rahul stepped up to provide the finishing touches to take India to a good total.
The Australian chase depended on Steve Smith and he started off slowly, taking 5 from his first 17 balls, before he hit three fours off Navdeep Saini in the 10th over to kick-start his innings – two whiplashed flicks and a straight drive had the chase up and running.
Smith and Marcus Labuschagne added 96 runs for third wicket but the chase derailed in the space of seven overs from the 31st. It was even stevens until then but Manus Labuschagne, who had looked in control for his 46, holed out at long-off. It was brave of Jadeja to toss it up, inviting a big hit, and Labuschagne ended up finding Mohammad Shami.
In the 38th over, Alex Carey chipped Kuldeep Yadav to covers before Australia’s back was broken three balls later in the same over. It was a googly from Yadav, shortish and turning away, and Smith had read it and went for the cut but ended up chopping it on to his stumps.
That Carey dismissal was Yadav’s 100th ODI wicket – third fastest Indian to get there and he would have been thrilled with his 101st that effectively sealed the game. A livid Smith walked back, swinging his bat in air in disgust. India have levelled the series courtesy to an allround performance led by Rahul, and now the caravan moves to Bangalore for the finale.