It's a story of contrasting dilemmas for Team India across the two limited-overs World Cup tournaments. The team management was left without stable choices at number 4 in the build-up to the fifty-over World Cup last year. Ahead of the World T20 this time, the side is, on the contrary, spoilt with choices for the opening spot - even as stats favour one player heavily over the other.
The ongoing T20I series against Sri Lanka saw a return of Shikhar Dhawan. The celebrated Indian opener was sidelined with an injury, but had been struggling with form ever since his return to action after the 2019 World Cup. His absence from the side saw KL Rahul emerging as a potent opener in the shortest format alongside vice-captain Rohit Sharma. The flamboyant Karnataka batsman produced impressive performances in the T20I series against West Indies (62, 11 and 92 in three matches), making his case strong for the remaining opening slot.
Shikhar Dhawan has enjoyed a healthy partnership with Rohit Sharma at the opening spot over the years, but strong performances from KL Rahul could well be ringing the danger bells for the Delhi batsman.
In the second T20I against Sri Lanka in Indore earlier this week, Dhawan and Rahul opened the batting together. While the Karnataka opener displayed quality stroke-making to score 45 off 32 deliveries, Dhawan's struggles with the bat continued. Even as the 34-year-old batsman scored 32, he took 29 deliveries to reach the figure. His pace of batting in the shortest format of the game had been under the scanner for quite some time, and may go against his favour when the selection committee sits to finalize the squad for T20 World Cup.
Since his return to the side after the 2019 World Cup, Dhawan has played in 10 T20Is (one abandoned), scoring 226 runs. He faced 198 deliveries in nine innings, scoring at an unsatisfactory strike-rate of 114.14. The slowness in his run-scoring has often come under criticism from fans and experts alike. At a time when India faces considerable struggles while setting the target, Dhawan's slow pace could prove fatal for the side in big games.
Rahul, in the meantime, scored 303 runs in 9 matches (one abandoned), taking only 220 deliveries at a significantly higher strike-rate of 137.72. Moreover, he came at third in the batting order throughout the home series against Bangladesh during this time, which is not his natural position in the limited-overs format.
In hindsight, Rahul has been a nomad in the Indian batting order across the limited-overs formats. He has come at third position in T20Is in Virat Kohli's absence, and has even batted at four. In the 2019 World Cup, he was initially the first-choice for the number-four, but was shifted to the opening spot after the injury to Shikhar Dhawan. And it is highly likely that the Karnataka batsman would have to accomodate for Dhawan if the Delhi batsman steps up in the final T20I in Pune later tonight.
"When Rohit comes back, it’s going to be a difficult thing to address because Shikhar is an experienced player but KL is playing so well. We have to decide the best combination to go with.” Virat Kohli had said in a press conference ahead of the Guwahati T20I, which was washed out.
One can understand why Virat and co. finds it hard to ignore Dhawan - he and Rohit share excellent camaraderie, and his performances in the ICC tournaments have always been exemplary. At the same time, however, it would be unfair to shift Rahul because he undeniably boasts of a better record of late than his Delhi compatriot in the shortest format of the game. He may have the experience of playing at other positions, but the batsman can be utilized best at his natural position, as his aggressive start allows his partners to play freely - as we saw in the Windies T20I series.
Moreover, Shreyas Iyer has been impressive as a number-4 batsman in the shortest format, and the arrival of Dhawan would naturally disturb the combinations in the middle-order. While it may be unwise to shift Virat Kohli, displacing Iyer may trigger the middle-order crisis once again.
Even in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament in 2019, Rahul scored at a strike-rate of 155 as an opener, scoring 313 runs in eight innings and helping Karnataka to title-victory. Dhawan, in five games in the tournament, registered scores of 0, 9, 19, 35 and 24.
The performances of both the players in third and final T20I may have a significant impact on the squad selection for the five-match T20I series in New Zealand. While KL Rahul may have already booked a ticket for the tour, the question remains - Should Dhawan be a natural pick in the playing XI if he travels to New Zealand?