KL Rahul unstrapped his helmet, pushing the grille over his forehead. He raised his bat, bat face down, to acknowledge the cheers of the Indian fans in Cardiff. Rahul had become the second Indian batsman to raise his bat during the World Cup warm-ups. About an hour later he would raise his bat once again, and become the first Indian batsman to hit a century on the trip.
Despite this being a warm-up game, Rahul’s performance is significant, and immediately raises a question for the Indian team management: is he now a contender for a batting slot in the first XI? Many would press further and ask: is Rahul now the best man to bat at No. 4 based on the form and the srokeplay he has displayed in the two warm-up matches?
Rahul’s strength lies in his eye-catching strokeplay. At The Oval last weekend against New Zealand, he probably played the best stroke of the match when he leaned into a cover drive and punched it neatly for a four. Immediately after that he played on, attempting to cut one that was too close to his body, and cursed himself. It was not the first time he had been out in that manner in recent times.
Against Bangladesh in Cardiff, however, Rahul did not throw away the opportunity he was given. Once again, like in the first warm-up game, he arrived after the early fall of the openers. Today, the difference was a sluggish start by India: they were 50 for 2 in the 14th over when Rahul walked in. Virat Kohli was desperate to up the tempo and Rahul quickly rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job. He used the shorter boundary to pick up easy runs. Kohli departed soon, and so too did Vijay Shankar, but Rahul did not let go the momentum.
Whatever his recent struggles in Test cricket might be, Rahul expresses himself in a much freer manner in limited-overs cricket. His successes in the IPL with Kings XI Punjab over the last two seasons have turned him into a senior player, and helped him assume more responsibility.
The No. 4 position demands flexibility, that a batsman be able to play the roles of anchor and aggressor, provide the innings balance and make things easier for the lower middle order. Today, Rahul allowed MS Dhoni to get in the groove and both men had fun thereafter.
So has Rahul become the automatic choice for the No. 4 slot? Being a warm-up game, Bangladesh too experimented with their bowlers, especially their spinners, whom they wanted to give match time. India will be aware that South Africa won’t be a picnic in their World Cup opener. Faf du Plessis’ men would have played two league matches already, by the time they face India at the Ageas Bowl on June 5. So the challenge will be different and likely more difficult.
Also, can Vijay Shankar be so easily pushed aside? He was forced to sit out the game against New Zealand, and understandably would have been nervous today, and was out swishing at an away-swinger. In his debut series in Australia and New Zealand, Vijay proved he could stand his ground and that is how he forced his way into contention, and eventually into the World Cup squad at the expense of Ambati Rayudu.
With six days to go for India’s World Cup opener, it might be premature to make a decision today. Form might be on Rahul’s side, but how players perform in the nets at times plays a vital role in how team managements make up their minds.
With Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan failing to register a good score in the warm-ups, India surely would want to bolster their batting line-up with an extra batsman. A week ago Rahul was an outsider for the No. 4 race. After today he has staked his claim and stands a good chance to become the accidental choice.