While there was a lot of excitement about the last-minute additions to India’s Asia Cup team, Rohit Sharma’s message of positional flexibility was the main point of a rare press conference to name the team. So much so that the captain of the Indian team had to explain.
“When I said that flexibility is important, I didn’t mean to say that the opener should bat seventh or that Hardik Pandya should bat first,” Rohit said. “Shikhar and Rohit have only batted first in the last seven or eight years, and Virat Kohli has only batted at three. When kids are four or five years old, it’s important for them to be flexible and bat up and down.
Ishan Kishan, who was listed on the team sheet as No.3, played at No.5 for India in their Asia Cup opener against Pakistan in Pallekele. The match was delayed because of rain. And with a mature 82 in a 138-run stand with Hardik Pandya, the 25-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman showed that he was, in many ways, the embodiment of this preached flexibility that the Indian leader wants his team to achieve.
Before we talk about the knock, we need to talk about the different roles Kishan can play in this India team. He is the backup wicketkeeper, opener, spin hitter in the middle overs, and the only left-handed tactical choice in the top six.
Before this match, 425 of his 694 ODI runs (at a strike rate of 125) had come as the first batsman. This included the fastest double-hundred in the history of the format against Bangladesh late last year, a knock that not only broke records but also showed India’s new, high-octane way of building their innings, as opposed to the more formulaic, slow-burn style used by Rohit, Dhawan, and Kohli up to and just after the last World Cup, when they were the top-three batsmen and were very successful.
Given how talented the team was, especially at the top, Kishan had to be put on the bench right after that 210 to make room for Rohit’s return. Also, Shubman Gill’s early-year form in all formats made it impossible to drop him.
When Kishan’s performance dropped when he moved back to the middle of the order in the series against New Zealand, the asterisk next to his spot in the first eleven when everyone was available rose. Even when he scored three half-centuries in a row against the West Indies last month, it seemed like he was just keeping a spot warm until Rohit came back and Gill showed that his drop in performance was just a fluke. As for the middle-order role, for which he had failed the audition, it was expected that KL Rahul would come back from injury and finally reclaim the No. 5 spot he had made his own with an average of 53 and a strike-rate close to 100 since the beginning of 2020.
The events of Saturday night’s match, which was cut short because of rain, will have been enough to make some things less certain. After Shaheen Afridi’s left-arm swing and seam had given India’s top order another hard time in the PowerPlay, Kishan went out to bat at 48/3. Even though the beginning was chaos, it was clear that India wanted to use a counterattack to get out of trouble, and Kishan was a big part of making that happen.
Right after a rain break, he gave Haris Rauf an upper-cut for six over backward point and got himself going. That happened at the same time as Pakistan’s spinners arrived after the Power Play. India did well to have one of their best spin pitchers on the field. The fact that he batted left-handed made it easier for him to take advantage of the fact that Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz both bowled with their left arms.
Kishan made sure to play the matchups to his benefit, and he got help from Pakistan’s good bowling and lazy fielding. He got 62 of his 82 runs against spin bowlers in just 55 deliveries. Against both Nawaz (28) and Shadab (20), he scored more than one run per ball. Kishan kept trying to hit the yard ball out of the park. If they didn’t pitch far enough, he cut them off. If they guarded in a square, he went over the extra fielder who had to be brought up to mid-off or mid-on.
Spin bowlers have very little room for mistake between overs 11 and 40 in ODIs, when there are fewer fielders in the deep than after the Power Play. Defensive bowling can be made twice as hard by a batter who can hit the ball far. This planned attack showed a small hole in Pakistan’s attack in the middle overs, where Babar Azam only used three fast bowlers because he wanted to save them for the end.
Eventually, Rauf came back and used a short ball to get rid of a cramping Kishan. Together with his other fast bowlers, he helped undo some of the damage that Kishan and Hardik Pandya’s expert 100-run partnership did.
In terms of the match itself, the knock didn’t mean much because the weather had the last word. But for a team looking at the bigger picture, Kishan’s knock was a clear example of how to mix the smart and the risky, and what happens when you throw a left-handed hook in between right-handed jabs.
In an interview with BCCI after the Hyderabad ODI early this year to welcome Gill to the “200 club,” Rohit joked with Kishan about how he wasn’t playing even though he hit a 200. Kishan replied, “Bhaiyya, you are the captain, you made that decision.”
It looks like Rohit will have to choose between Ishan and Kishan once more. The southpaw has done enough and is versatile enough to deserve a spot. But the big question would be which spot and whose spot.