As things stand, Ishan Kishan may start the World Cup from the bench. Going by the pecking order that is not based on recent form, KL Rahul is set to be India’s No.5 despite not playing competitive cricket since May. The remainder of the Asia Cup and the ODIs against Australia should provide ample warm up. Even if they don’t, the World Cup league phase is long enough for the management to throw its weight behind Rahul for at least another couple of matches.
As much as it seems fair to Rahul, who has the best average (56.53) among all batters at No.5 to have played at least five innings since the 2019 World Cup, it also is unfair to Kishan who not only has a staggering career strike rate of 106.74, but also averages a fifty every second innings. The sample size still is small — Kishan has played just 17 innings so far. Nevertheless, it is impressive considering he never got a set position unlike, say, Shubman Gill who has opened in 25 of his 29 ODI innings. Kishan, by comparison, has already batted from 1 to 5.
“I feel Ishan has done everything he needs to do to be a frontrunner,” Gautam Gambhir told Star Sports after the squad was selected on Tuesday. “Just because he is Ishan Kishan and hasn’t played a lot of international cricket, you’re saying that KL Rahul should play before him. But if Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma were in place of Ishan Kishan, would KL Rahul be able to replace them? The answer is ‘no’.”
Ever since Sourav Ganguly spelt out that Rahul Dravid will have to keep wicket to make the cut for the 2003 World Cup, being the India wicketkeeper has been an unenviable job. Sure, there were MS Dhoni and Rishabh Pant, but for many, keeping wicket didn’t seem to come naturally. Rahul is one of them. His style of batting, more crucially, goes against the nature of the job. Wicketkeeper-batters in white-ball cricket are match winners, trail blazers; they are not supposed to drop anchor.
Which, right now, is almost the point of Kishan. So freakish are some of his feats, all achieved in such a short period that the general reaction is to put it down as an anomaly. Like the double hundred in Chattogram when Kishan was just 10 ODIs old. Or the fact that he has scored at least a fifty at every position from 1-5. In fact, numbers show that Kishan’s returns dip the lower he bats. The only time Kishan played at No.5 was against Pakistan last Saturday, when he scored 82. But in six outings at No.4 — now Shreyas Iyer’s designated spot — Kishan has a strike rate of 67 and averages 21.2 with just one fifty.
Check out Kishan’s numbers opening though. One hundred and three fifties at an average of 70.83 and a strike rate of 125 — both best in their category among all six specialist openers for India since the 2019 World Cup. Gill and Rohit Sharma aggregate more because they have opened bulk of the matches and tend to bat longer, but Kishan too could have got somewhere had he been persisted with. But the management didn’t, despite his natural aggression, the left-handed dimension he brings to the top order, that double hundred or the three recent fifties — all scored at a far better strike rate than Gill — on two-paced Caribbean pitches, the kind India are likely to encounter in the World Cup at home.
It’s not as if India are slamming it at the top. Sharma has hit only three hundreds in 25 innings since the 2019 World Cup. And Gill’s nerve — he was batting on one off 18 balls at one stage — was ruthlessly exposed by Pakistan. Which brings us to India’s confusing approach at the top. Successful openers are either prolific accumulators or dashers. Sharma used to be a dashing accumulator who liked to take some time before accelerating. That version of Sharma fetched five hundreds in the 2019 World Cup alone, four of them leading to wins. The new version of Sharma — trying to hit reverse scoops and ramp shots — isn’t converting as frequently as he used to. The three hundreds since 2019, though contrasting, fetched wins.
All this points to an irrefutable conclusion: India’s winning probability increases whenever Sharma hits a hundred. And that can happen more if Sharma plays his natural game, not the one he is trying to adapt to. What changed suddenly? As long as Shikhar Dhawan was the aggressor, Sharma could take his time. Not now. There is nothing wrong in a new approach as long as it yields results. India though aren’t getting enough hundreds from their best opener. Kishan could be the key to unshackling Sharma, but right now a different conversation is taking place.