When a team scores 356, 381 and 316 in a three-match ODI series, it seems there couldn’t be anything wrong with the batting lineup. But India now need to address a very important aspect of their batting and perhaps the most important one: The Slot of the Openers.
India do not play an ODI till the Champions Trophy later this year in June in England and Wales, and in the home season so far, the openers have failed miserably. The Indian selectors and captain are in a desperate situation to find the perfect pair which will take the field in the Champions Trophy. In the series against New Zealand, India’s openers collectively scored 226 runs. Rohit Sharma in that particular series scored 123 runs in 5 innings @24.60 and Ajinkya Rahane scored 103 runs in 5 innings @20.60. To put the opening batsmen in perspective, 226 in 5 innings amounts to 45.2 runs per innings. This effectively puts India at 45/2 in any given match, which is hardly the start a team looks for from their openers.
In the recently concluded three-match ODI series against England, India’s openers collectively mustered 37 runs in 3 innings. India used three openers in this series. KL Rahul scored 25 runs in 3 innings @8.33, Shikhar Dhawan scored 11 runs in 2 innings @5.50 and Ajinkya Rahane scored just the one run in his solitary innings. To again put it in perspective, India were effectively 12/2 in every match, which is a horrendous start. To India’s advantage, the middle and lower middle order batsmen have more than made up for the starts given by their openers.
But India cannot go into a tournament as defending champions knowing their openers haven’t scored runs in the last eight ODIs which had just two fifties from the openers. During the ICC Champions Trophy in England in 2013, Shikhar Dhawan had put himself on the world map with an astonishing tournament. Dhawan in that tournament scored 365 in five matches with two centuries and two half-centuries. Rohit Sharma also had a good tournament then, scoring 177 runs in five matches with two half-centuries.
A one-day career that was in the danger of going into oblivion got a lifeline when it got a chance to become an opener. Rohit’s performance till December 2012 read like this: 81 innings, 1978 runs, 30.43 average, 77.93 strike rate and 2 hundreds. Until December 2012, Rohit had opened only three times in ODI cricket, in a series against South Africa where he had a meagre return of 29 off 59 balls.
It all changed in 2013. From January 2013 onwards, his batting average has almost doubled, his strike rate has jumped from 78 to 89 and he has eight hundreds in 45 innings since it took him 18 innings to register his first hundred as an opener. Rohit’s stats in this period read: 62 innings, 2883 runs, 52.43 average, 88.74 strike rate and 9 hundreds. There is no doubt that he will be India’s first choice opener, but the factor that hurts India the most is that he’s presently injured and hasn’t played since the ODI series against New Zealand. He has missed the entire series against England and there are doubts over his participation for the remainder of the home season.
Shikhar Dhawan announced himself in the previous Champions Trophy with 365 runs. Later that year, he scored 187 on his Test debut vs Australia which was the fastest ever hundred on Test debut. His ODI form before the England series was brilliant on the tour to Australia. In the five ODIs there, he scored 287 runs with one hundred and two half-centuries. The problem has been he has played in the England series after a gap of almost an year and that has shown in his performance. On good batting strips, Dhawan has been scratchy: he has hardly got off to a commanding start. His career record, though, still makes him a very good option as the second opener.
Rahul has had a mixed bag so far in his international career. To describe it, listen to Nasser Hussain’s words for him throughout this series which have been “Feast or Famine.” Rahul is very inexperienced as compared to the two above, but he has certainly made the Indian fans very excited. He has already got Test hundreds in Australia, West Indies and Sri Lanka and a career best 199 in the Test series vs England. On his ODI debut vs Zimbabwe, he scored a hundred and on his T20I debut vs West Indies he scored a hundred. Rahul is a very good bet to be considered if the selectors have apprehensions about either Rohit or Dhawan, and he could go as the third opener if India think in that direction.
Ajinkya Rahane has been a very baffling case in ODI cricket so far. For a man who averages close to 50 in Test cricket, Rahane has nowhere reached those lofty standards in ODI cricket. He has played 73 ODIs so far with 43 innings as an opener. As an opener, Rahane has scored 1352 runs @32.19 with two hundreds and 8 fifties. Ajinkya Rahane has also batted at numbers three, four, six and seven, and at the moment there is no place for Rahane in those slots. Rahane does stand out on basis of technique and adaptability to seaming wickets which would be the case in England.
India, who have a strong batting lineup and don’t play an ODI till the Champions Trophy, are clearly pondering upon a very important question. The openers have been misfiring of late and if India are to defend their title come June, they need to settle upon the perfect pair.