World Cup 2019: At the top, KL Rahul flies under the radar

Summoned at the position after Dhawan’s injury, opener’s valuable knock against Pakistan went almost unnoticed

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World Cup 2019: At the top, KL Rahul flies under the radar
India’s KL Rahul gave a good account of himself by posting his third ODI fifty in the World Cup game against Pakistan in Manchester on Sunday

Rohit Sharma's latest opening partner in ODIs, KL Rahul's 57 invaluable runs against Pakistan at Old Trafford on Sunday nearly went unnoticed.

Much of the buzz was around Rohit's masterly 24th ODI hundred, Virat Kohli's 77 and him being the quickest to 11,000 ODI runs, besides 'walking' despite not edging the ball.

Such was India's dominating performance against Pakistan that the margin of runs – 89 under DLS method after quite a few rain interruptions – overshadowed the attractive Karnataka opener's third ODI fifty in 16 visits to the crease.

The 27-year-old has batted three times in this World Cup – his first – and has batted in three different positions each time.

While he was picked originally in the squad as a specialist opener and would play only if either of the first-choice openers Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan was injured, he pushed himself into the playing XI by scoring a hundred at No. 4 against Bangladesh in the warm-up match.

That all but sealed India's search for the No. 4 slot, which was becoming more a floating position than giving one fixed player to settle down in it.

When the World Cup proper began, Rahul batted at this slot against South Africa in the opener and made a decent 26. But in the next game against Australia, he batted at No. 6 as the think-tank sent Hardik Pandya at No. 4 to up the ante.

The situation the Indian team was in was such that Pandya just had to accelerate the scoring, and not a situation where Rahul would go in to steady the ship. After all, it was smooth sailing for India against the Aussies.

Even then, after Pandya had proved his worth with a 27-ball 48, Rahul walked in to bat in the last over and scored 11 off three balls to take the total past the 350-mark.

And, in his third World Cup innings, circumstances forced him to go to his preferred slot, courtesy Dhawan's left thumb injury ruling him out of action for at least three matches.

Making the most of the opportunity to bat at the position he has worked all his life, Rahul gave a good account of himself.

Playing his first ever international against Pakistan, that too in the World Cup with so much of hype around the match, Rahul kept his cool and performed like a seasoned campaigner.

Walking out for the first time in ODIs with Sharma, one would have expected the senior batsman to take first strike, allowing the butterflies to settle down in Rahul's stomach and get a feel of the atmosphere from the non-striker's end before facing the first ball.

It was also the first time in two years that Rahul was opening in ODIs – save for the one innings of 60 against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup in Dubai last September when he opened with Ambati Rayudu.

Instead, Rahul, it was, who took first strike to Mohammed Amir and saw out a maiden over, leaving harmless deliveries outside the off-stump.

Of course, there was some mis-communication in running between the wickets among Sharma and Rahul but that was one of the challenges that comes with new opening pairs.

On the rationale behind letting Rahul take first strike, Sharma said post match: "KL also likes to take the strike, and for me it was important to give him that because him coming off that mindset of taking the strike and playing the first ball, he just likes to take the strike, and so am I. I like to face the new ball. Again, that is his comfort. He is playing his first game as an opener here, so I wanted to make sure that he's comfortable."

Rahul was frank to admit that he was nervous initially. Speaking about his knock to the official broadcasters, Rahul said: "It has been a while since I opened the batting in a One-Day Internationals. Bit of nerves but happy that I could get the team off to a start like that. We know that with Pakistan the initial threat is Amir and Hasan Ali who can seam the ball a little bit. It was important for us to be smart and play out the first 10 overs. I am happy I did that.

"I won't lie, I was nervous about the hype of the India-Pakistan game but it was more because I hadn't opened the batting in a while. Getting an opportunity after almost two years, so I was more nervous about that," he added.

Rahul certainly did the job for the team. He may have been slow at the start but with Sharma keeping the scoreboard ticking at the other end, Rahul did not need to go for the strokes. Rahul anchored the innings admirably and punished the loose deliveries.

He did not curb his attacking instincts, though, raising his fifty with a six off Shoaib Malik at a fair strike rate of nearly 74.

It was fitting that the first century opening stand against Pakistan in World Cup came off Rahul's blade, courtesy a single off off-colour leg-spinner Shadab Khan, the youngster's contribution in the stand being 37 off 54 deliveries.

One would have wished Rahul to carry on, but as is becoming synonymous with Rahul, he failed to convert yet another international fifty into three figures. He has had 19 international fifties as against eight centuries across all formats.

Former India captain and now brand ambassador of this World Cup, K Srikkanth gave Rahul's innings its due. "Everyone knows how good a batsman Rohit Sharma is but for me the more important innings against Pakistan was from KL Rahul," Srikkanth wrote in his column for ICC.

Whether Rahul's crucial knock on Sunday is spoken about or not, the team management knows his value to the team. For Kohli and Ravi Shastri and those who matter, it is not necessarily three-figure knocks or five-wicket bags that are appreciated. Even small contributions are worth the weight of gold in the context of the game.

And, Rahul has certainly caught everyone's eye in that regard.

Did You Know?

Out of the 16 ODI innings (17 matches) KL Rahul has played in, he has opened in 8 of them, scored 337 runs for an average of 56.16. All his 4 fifty-plus scores (1x100, 3x50) have come in this position. In his other 8 innings, at Nos 3 to 6, he has totalled 100 runs at 16.66

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