India started the series amid questions over KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan as the team's second opener. He started the series as No.3 in India's faulty start against Australia, and with their backs against the wall, the team management unknowingly found their solution to their long-standing middle-order issue in Rahul. Batting at No.5 on Friday in ODIs, only the second time in his career, Rahul blazed away with a 52-ball 80 to take India's total to 340 for six following the quick dismissals of Virat Kohli and Manish Pandey.
Bouncing back from their faulty plans for the batting lineup in the opener, India made a strong start to their innings with the top three - including Kohli who was back to his preferred No.3 spot - scoring around 63 per cent of the total runs on the flat track of the Saurashtra Cricket Ground in Rajkot.
Continuing with his impressive comeback to world cricket, Dhawan fell four runs short of what could have been his 18th century in the format. Kohli, who seemed to be a man on a mission, carved out 78 runs before being dismissed by Adam Zampa for the fifth time in ODIs. And Rohit Sharma managed 46 runs. But Zampa's three-fer brought back Australia each time India threatened to run away with their scoring spree.
With Kohli shifting back to No.3 in the lineup after his troubling 16 at No.4 in the opener, there did stand a curiosity amid over the new No.4. But India went with their newly-trusted option in Shreyas Iyer, who was however cleaned up by Zampa for 7 off 17. It was then that Rahul made his way to the middle, at No.5, when India stood at 198 for 3 in 32.4 overs.
With a well-set Kohli by his side, the pair added a half-century partnership to take a confident Indian side into the slog overs. Australia had brought back their best - Starc and Cummins - to the attack, but the pair managed four boundaries in their two overs. But after adding 27 runs more to the scoreboard where Rahul dominated with his 42 off the 78 runs in the partnership, Kohli departed and India suffered a mini-collapse, having being reduced to 280 for five in the 45th over. Rahul had the last batting option for India, Ravindra Jadeja by his side to keep India. It was then that the 25-year-old unleashed an array of brilliant strokes to take India well past 300 in Rajkot.
With a bottom-handed slice over the square region against Mitchell Starc, Rahul brought up his fifty, and followed it up with a six over deep extra cover in the very next ball. He managed yet another boundary, down a backward point against Starc, before carving a late shot to the third man boundary for a six against a pacy short ball from Pat Cummins.
Rahul ended with 80 runs off 52 deliveries laced with six boundaries and three maximums, at a strike rate of 153.85. This was the first time since November 2013 that an India batsman at No. 5 or lower had scored a half-century at a strike rate of over 150 when batting first. There have been a total of 67 such instances in ODI cricket between these two efforts by India batsmen.
Rahul scored 26 runs against the 13 deliveries he faced against Starc and targetted the cover regins throughout his knock, scoring 31.2 per cent of his runs through the region. He also scored 26 off 21 runs in the middle overs with no false shots and in the death overs, he pulled off 54 off 31 with 78 per cent attacking shots.
Have India found their middle-order solution?
Does Rahul actually have a fixed batting position in the playing XI? In 27 innings over three-and-a-half years in ODI cricket, Rahul has played at all positions from No.1 to No.6 in the batting lineup with his numbers as an opener being the most impressive. Besides his 17 appearances as an opener, Rahul has batted at No.3 thrice, four times at No.4, twice at No.5 and only once at No.6. But through these 28 games, Rahul has emerged as a versatile option in the batting order, one that India haven't had in the last decade.
In times of Dhawan and Rohit suffering from injuries or taking a break, Rahul has filled in as an opener, and has averaged around 50 in 17 games with three centuries. When Kohli takes a break, Rahul is the man the team management falls back to for the No.3 responsibility. He even took over the No.4 responsibility thrice in the buildup to India's World Cup preparations while also batting at that position once in the tournament. And on Friday, Rahul walked in at No.5. And despite this constant shifting of his position, Rahul has an average of well over 50 in ODIs since the start of 2019 with two centuries and three fifties. And, since the start of 2019, he has recorded only 10.5% false shots, which is stands only second behind among all Indians - Kohli with 10% false shots
Moreover, with his keeping abilities, Rahul can also be opted as a back-up option to the primary choice, just like in the Australia series where Rishabh Pant has suffered a concussion while batting in the series opener.
It is truly a testament to the talent of Rahul that despite the management's constant meddling with his batting position in the lineup and his role in the side he continues to impress with his sheer consistency.