Star-studded dilemma: Who opens with Rohit Sharma is a happy conundrum

India's problem of plenty in the opening department

The other night in Pune, after blasting 52 off 36 balls, Shikhar Dhawan likened India's problem of plenty in the opening department to a movie. “Main bhi aa gaya hu picture mein, aj maine bhi achcha kar diya. Toh picture achchi ban rahi hai. Khair ye sirdardi meri nahi hai.” (Now I’ve also entered the frame with my performance in this match but thankfully, that is not my headache). He then threw in a disclaimer: “I like batting with both of them and we are good friends.”

A happy headache is how India's batting Vikram Rathour addressed the dilemma on Sunday, having three quality openers to choose from - besides Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul. “It's a good dilemma to have. Rohit is an obvious choice, of course. Both of them (Dhawan and Rahul) are playing well. Shikhar has done well in one-dayers and Rahul is in great form. So we'll deal with it when we have to. There are still a couple of days to go. The management will sit down and make the choice,” he said at a press conference.

Dhawan and Rahul were terrific in the T20I series against Sri Lanka, as were Sharma and Rahul against the West Indies. So like in the pre-World Cup days, the three familiar faces — and admittedly good friends — are jostling for two spots. One is undroppable, the other two not quite, but have still done enough to stake their claims.

A reunion of Sharma and Dhawan looks the most straightforward possibility. After all, they're the fourth-most prolific opening pair in the history of the 50-over game (4,708 runs at 45.26) and arguably the most destructive pair around, each capable of piling on daddy hundreds at breakneck speed. If Sharma was the highest run-getter last year, Dhawan had chimed in with precious knocks in an injury-ravaged year, such as the stroke-laden 117 against Australia in the World Cup and the whirlwind 143 against the same opposition at Mohali before that. And as recently as the Sri Lanka series, the left-hander demonstrated that he's far from a spent force. A week before that, he had scored a counter-punching 140 on a fast-bowler friendly surface at the Ferozeshah Kotla, and said he's in as “good a batting space as I have ever been.”

India's Shikhar Dhawan, left, takes a selfie with teammate KL Rahul after they won the Twenty20 international cricket series against Sri Lanka in Pune, India, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

With hopes of reclaiming Test stripes fading, Dhawan would channelise all his attention to the limited-over versions. It wouldn't help Rahul's cause that he has struggled against quality seamers in the first 10 overs, and Australia have landed full-strength with Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc in tow. It's unlikely that Rahul would be exposed to them.

But the Sharma-Dhawan opening combination would imperil Rahul's spot. It's unlikely that he would be pushed to No 3, where walks in skipper Virat Kohli. He could definitely bat down the order, and has been open to that suggestion as well, but hasn't quite prospered at No 4 or lower, where his inability to rotate the strike has often stalled him. Moreover, India are quietly auditioning and building a middle order. Rathour admitted as much: “Middle order is not a weakness. A few innings back, we scored 383. We've been scoring runs, our batters have done well. Shreyas (Iyer) is batting really well. (Rishabh) Pant has played a couple of useful innings.”

They have more or less zeroed in on Iyer as the future No 4, and to his credit, the Mumbai batsman has responded with solid performances. Against the West Indies, he scored two half-centuries distinct in rendition, demonstrating flexibility of approach the best No. 4s show. The 70 in Chennai on a slow surface and the side reeling was built on patience and vigilance, while the 53 in Vizag was enterprising and thrilling, smoothly shifting gears and smacking 31 runs in one over. Rahul too can modulate the tempo of his knocks, as he has shown several times in the IPL, but displacing Iyer from that spot will be harsh. Making him bat at No 5 will be under-utilising him. Making him bat anywhere other than the top-three is wasting his redoubtable potential.

The idea of deploying Rahul as a wicketkeeper-batsman too was floated, only for Rathour to laugh it off: “We haven't really started thinking on those lines yet. Rahul can keep, that's the skill that he has. So that will depend if the team management feels at any stage we require that,” he said. After all, India aren't treading through calamitous times to play him as a wicketkeeper- batsman.

Furthermore, Pant has shouldered more responsibilities in recent times. “He's working hard on his fitness. He's played some useful innings lately. So, lot of work. He's practising hard, so hoping he comes good, becomes more consistent,” he said.

So to continue the Dhawan's movie refrain, he has not only entered the fray but knocked Rahul out of it. Like a main actor would a stunt double.

Richardson wants to tame batsmen and pitches

India vs Sri Lanka, Ind vs SL, India vs SL series, India openers, India vs Australia, Ind vs Aus, India vs New Zealand, India tour of New Zealand, Ind vs NZ, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Sports news, cricket news, Indian Express

Australia fast bowler Kane Richardson, an IPL regular, is no stranger to Indian conditions. (Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran)

Australia fast bowler Kane Richardson, an IPL regular, is no stranger to Indian conditions. “India in India is always the biggest challenge and after what happened last year they will be ready for it. Confidence is up but the home team is always favourite. We are the underdogs,” he said. He termed it as the biggest challenge in white-ball cricket “It's the biggest challenge in white-ball cricket, coming over here and playing against India on the surfaces over here. It's a lot different than Australia. The ground sizes are a lot smaller than Australia, (and) mis-hits can often go for six.”

“It's something we have spoken a lot about. I think everyone in the team has played here before, so it's nothing new. Starting today, we will figure out a plan to stop some of those guys. It will be a high-scoring contest I'm sure,” added the right-arm medium-pacer.