India vs England – Kohli The Opener Opens Up New Options For India But Closes The Door For Dhawan
Virat Kohli surprised everyone by leaving out an out-of-form KL Rahul and Ishan Kishan both from the series decider against England in Ahmedabad on Saturday and then walked out to bat with Rohit Sharma at the start of the Indian innings. His decision to open for the country, something which he had only done on seven occasions previously proved to be a masterstroke. The Indian skipper was the ideal foil for Rohit Sharma and played second fiddle as the latter went after the bowling and gave India their best start in the series. The pair put together a sizzling 94 off just 9 overs with Rohit contributing 64 off 34 deliveries and Kohli chipping in with 22 off 20. India got the platform and went on to record a massive score of 224 with the skipper anchoring the innings with a classy unbeaten 80 off 52 deliveries.
The indifferent form of Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan’s ordinary record in the format for India opened up an opportunity for Kohli at the top of the order and he grabbed it with both hands. The idea was clear. Kohli wanted to play the role of the anchor and playmaker while the others counter-attacked throughout the innings. And it paid off. There was a plan and strategy to this decision. While the Rahul-Rohit pair would remain as a viable opening pair for India, the team needs a back-up opener should one of them fail. With Suryakumar Yadav playing two match-defining innings from number 3 – Kohli’s preferred position – in the first two matches of his international career – and with depth in the Indian middle-order, the skipper decided to push himself up the order.
The move was always going to be a tactical masterstroke as it allows two of the greatest batsmen in the format’s history and the Indian line-up to bat together and face a potential full quota of 20 overs. Kohli expressed these thoughts after the series victory and revealed his plans to continue opening for India and also for his franchise – the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the upcoming season of the IPL starting from the 9th of April. With Kohli anchoring from one end, his presence in the middle allows the other players to play freely and attack the bowling throughout the course of the innings. It also gives Kohli time to settle in and accelerate and explode later in his innings. Thirdly it creates space for the likes of Suryakumar Yadav and Shreyas Iyer to bat at their preferred positions in the middle order.
So with India having the luxury of three combinations from the trio of Rohit-Kohli-Rahul to open the innings with Kishan also in the mix after his fantastic performance on debut, where does this leave the veteran Indian opener Dhawan? Does it mean the end of the rope for Dhawan the T20I batsman?
Dhawan has a modest overall record in T20I cricket having scored 1673 runs in 63 innings at an average of 27.88 and strike rate of 127.41 with 11 fifties. There has been just one calendar year in which he has been excellent in the format. Dhawan aggregated 689 runs in 17 innings at an average of 40.52 and strike rate of 147.22 registering 6 fifties in 2018.
However, his form dipped since 2019 and he has managed to score just 441 runs in 18 innings at an average of 24.5 and strike rate of 114.24 in the last couple of years – these are poor returns for a top-order batsman. More than the runs he has scored it is the sluggish strike rate which is the problem for Dhawan post 2019. He gave glimpses of his destructive prowess in a couple of innings in 2020 – against Sri Lanka in Pune and Australia in Sydney (52 off 36 balls in both the innings) – but such knocks have been few and far between.
Dhawan has not been able to replicate for India what he did for the Delhi Capitals in the latter half of the IPL both in 2019 and 2020. He turned from accumulator to aggressor and scored big runs consistently at a very high strike rate playing match-winning knocks for his franchise. From a mere 132 runs at a rate of 122.22 in the first six matches, Dhawan hammered 486 runs in his last 11 matches last season at a strike rate of 152.35. He scored at a rate of 151.01 in the latter half of the tournament in 2019 after crawling at 116.03 in the first six matches of the season.
For Dhawan to move up in the pecking order of reserved openers for India and to merit a place in India’s World T20 squad he would have to repeat what he did for the Capitals at the top of the order in the second half of the two previous seasons. He would be competing with the IPL Run-Machine KL Rahul and an inspired captain who wants to open for his country.
Rahul’s form in the England series notwithstanding, he has an outstanding record for India in the format and has played many match-winning knocks in big matches in the last four to five years. He also has been in prolific form in the IPL with the highest combined aggregate since 2018. Kohli, on the other hand, has opened for India a total of 8 times in T20 cricket and has a strike rate of 148.66 in the position. He had scored a brilliant 70 off just 41 deliveries opening with Gautam Gambhir against New Zealand in Chennai in 2012.
Kohli’s most successful season in the IPL came as an opener for RCB in 2016 when he aggregated a colossal 973 runs (mostly as opener) in 16 matches at a strike rate of 152.03 including 4 hundreds and 7 fifties – it remains the highest aggregate in a season in the IPL.
Time is running out for Dhawan – the T20I batsman for India. There is no place for Dhawan – The Accumulator in India’s new found all-out attacking strategy. Dhawan 2.0 – The Aggressor is the left-hander’s only hope of warranting a blue jersey for the mega event in October.