The missing jigsaw in India’s middle order puzzle


India were tottering at 16-3 at the Wankhede with Mitchell Starc breathing fire. He was getting the ball to swing in late and constantly troubling the Indian batters. India were yet again falling to a swing bowling masterclass from a left-arm seamer. The pitch at Wankhede was looking like WACA. But enters, the calm and composed KL Rahul.

Starc was steaming in for the hat trick ball to be bowled to Rahul. The Indian number 5 creamed it through covers with so much ease and class. KL was off and running. He was extremely cautious and watchful against the lanky Australian fast bowlers in his unbeaten knock of 75* off 91 balls.

He weathered the storm, anchored the innings and freed up in the end to help India register a 5 wicket victory over Australia. KL was happy to leave the balls and defend under his eyes in the initial part of the innigs. for the bad balls as he pounced on anything that was short and loose or driving the balls when overpitched. In the end, KL gave glimpses of his power hitting abilities which were not needed today as the situation demanded calm head and a patient knock.

The Indian batter gives calmness to the chaotic history of the Indian middle order. India were in dire search of a perfect number 5 after the retirement of Suresh Raina.In KL, India have got a banker, who can arrests collapse, can build innings, and go berserk at the death. He can switch avatars according to what the team needs. And yes, he keeps wickets too…

The development of KL as a middle order bat is also intriguing. Pant suffered a concussion in 2020 against Australia at the exact same location. And KL had to keep wickets from the next ODI. Since then he has made the position his own and been the backbone of the Indian middle order.
He is the enigma that keeps the Indian top 3 pressure-free. The top 3 do not have to worry about playing cautiously to save their wickets. The run rate of India in the 2019-23 cycle is 6.12 runs per over. This may be largely due to the fact that they have an assured number 5 who could be relied upon in case of quick early wickets.

KL Rahul in ODIs at number 5

Since KL Rahul started batting at number 5, he has scored 801 runs in 17 innings and has been the highest run scorer in that position in one fewer innings than the next-best Aslanka. Aslanka has scored 767 runs in 18 innings. During this period , he has averaged over 60s at a strike rate just below a hundred. Tom Latham has scored 664 runs in 16 innings while Jos Butler has scored 481 runs in 15 innings. KL Rahul is clearly in a league of his own right now.

He has the best ODI average by an Indian batter while batting at 5 or below with a minimum of 500 runs. The Karnataka batter has averaged 57.23, while his counterparts averaged in the mid to higher 40s (Dhoni (47.02), Dravid (45.18) , and Kedar Jadhav averaged (44.22)). While KL has a very small sample size but these are very encouraging signs for India which has been haunted by the lack of middle-order runs in the recent past.

The versatility which KL Rahul provides is second to none. He can play patient knocks like today where he scored 75* off 91 or the one against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens in a similar tricky situation like today. He scored 64* off 103 in that match. Meanwhile, KL scored a run-a-ball 112 against New Zealand or play monstrous innings like 88* off 64 or 80 off 52 to give India the much-needed finishing kick.

KL’s form is crucial for India going forward. The Indian top order can free themselves from the burden of carrying the batting lineup from the past with the consistent KL Rahul behind them. KL also said that the management has backed the batter to bat at number 5 and has clarity on how to bat in such situations. India is getting their jigsaw pieces places at right places in an all-important world cup year. And KL has made them even more threatening than before. The only thing missing now is the elusive trophy in their cabinet.

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