Who will be Rohit Sharma’s opening partner in the 1st T20I against West Indies – Ishan Kishan or Virat Kohli?

In the adjacent Eden Gardens nets, Virat Kohli and Ishan Kishan had their batting sessions and were preparing for the three-game T20I series against the West Indies which begins on Wednesday. Kishan exuded the dynamism of youth; Kohli was pure class, resplendent in her blankets. He played a lot of them, against setters and spinners. The former captain was in no mood to dodge his signature shot.

Rohit Sharma did not participate in the optional session. Hours before India training on Tuesday, he had told reporters to “keep quiet” about Kohli’s form, but we’ll get to that later.

Kishan and Kohli are India’s opening options in the series, alongside Rohit, after KL Rahul was ruled out with a hamstring injury. The team’s management is unlikely to pull a rabbit out of the hat and promote Venkatesh Iyer as flyhalf. In all his games for India so far, the versatile hitter has been used in order, despite his opening feats for Kolkata Knight Riders.

Virat Kohli during a pre-match training on Monday evening. ((Photo: CAB))

At the moment, the scales are tipped towards Kishan to pair his captain at the top, but an open Rohit-Kohli partnership could work wonders. Fans got a taste of what the team’s two best batsmen could do, when they paired up at the top in the fifth T20I against England in Ahmedabad last year. The white ball bat felt like music with the lightness of touch, with Rohit waltzing on 34 balls 64 and Kohli remaining unbeaten on 80 balls from 52, against Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Chris Jordan and Ben Stokes. After the game, then-India captain Kohli expressed his desire to open with Rohit at last year’s T20 World Cup.

Rahul’s bucket of runs in the Indian Premier League has forced a change of plans. Kohli admitted this, saying, “Things were different before IPL, now it’s hard to look beyond KL Rahul at the top of the order.”

In hindsight, that was a mistake. The Rohit-Rahul opening combination failed to click in the first game of the ICC event, against Pakistan. In fact, in the second match against New Zealand, Rohit fell to No. 3 to welcome Kishan to the top, while Kohli came in at No. 4. And India came out of the T20 World Cup with a groan.

India played a T20I series after the showpiece event, at home to New Zealand, where Rohit and Rahul opened the first two games and Kishan replaced Rahul in the third.

The latter’s absence against the Caribbean gives the Indian team’s management an opportunity to revisit the Rohit-Kohli combination, with an eye on another T20 World Cup some eight months later.

The Eden pitch for the first T20I looks firmer, firmer and smoother, promising good bounce and carry. Stroke players could revel in playing on it. Evening dew is likely to aggravate problems for bowlers.

Kohli, who opens regularly for Royal Challengers Bangalore, hasn’t scored big for a while now. The first six overs in the shorter format are heavily skewed in favor of the batsmen due to restrictions on the pitch. This could work well for a player trying to regain their high score mojo. Also, according to Rohit, if journalists stop questioning his predecessor’s form, things will improve.

‘Keep quiet’

During the pre-match press conference, the skipper was asked about Kohli’s continued batting inconsistency and what role the captain and coach should play when a great player like him is going through a long spell of fallow.

“If you (the media) can shut up for a while, everything will fall into place. He (Kohli) is in a big mental space. He has been playing international cricket for over a decade. He knows how to handle pressure,” retorted Rohit.

IND versus WI It will also be interesting if Virat Kohli comes out to open with Rohit to be part of the races as he has been dealing with a lean patch. (Photo: CAB)

Kohli hasn’t scored an international hundred for almost two and a half years now. It might be an overstatement to say he has been through a slump as a batsman, as just a month ago he scored two half-centuries in South Africa’s three-game ODI series. But by his high standards, he has lost his consistency. Scores of 8, 18 and 0 in the three ODIs against the West Indies further attested to this inconsistency. Since the start of 2020, his Test and ODI averages have fallen to 28.14 and 39, but he is averaging 49.50 in the T20Is.

As Indian team head coach Rahul Dravid said during the South Africa tour, every cricketer, especially those who play for a long time, goes through such phases of leanness. Sunil Gavaskar observed, while commenting for the host broadcaster during the ongoing West Indies series, that Kohli should not apply pressure while he is punching. Gavaskar also explained how the ex-skipper solved some technical issues that had crept in as a result of hard work on the nets.

IPL auctions “made and dusted”

The T20I series follows the IPL auction where some cricketers became overnight millionaires. Kishan for Rs 15.25 crore and Deepak Chahar for Rs 14 crore were the two biggest bids at auction.

IND versus WI Shreyas Iyer and Mohd Siraj during nets on Monday. (Photo: CAB)

It was an emotional rollercoaster, especially for the younger players. So after the auction, the Indian team management sat them down with a clear message.

“Yesterday (Monday) we had a great meeting, which conveyed the message that the focus should be firmly on the color blue over the next two weeks. It was understood that the guys would go through some ups and downs and a lot of emotional feelings (during the auction). But it’s done and dusted off. They’re professionals and now it’s only about India. Nothing else matters,” Rohit said.

He was asked about Kishan, his Mumbai Indians teammate. The captain’s response was sharp. “I don’t want to talk about the IPL here. We’re not going to focus on what they’re going to do for their respective franchises at the IPL. The IPL lasts two months, we play for India for 10 months.

Rohit admitted that India’s white ball teams had “a few holes” and the team’s management were looking to “fill in the gaps” ahead of the T20 World Cup Down Under. Players will be assigned specific roles, but the process of focusing on certain players has yet to begin. “We will keep our options open for the T20 World Cup. Conditions will be different in Australia. The doors are open to everyone,” Rohit said.

Rahul Dravid, India vs West Indies India team head coach Rahul Dravid at Eden Gardens on Monday. (Photo: CAB)

As for his own fitness which had been questionable over the past few months – a hamstring injury ruled him out of the South Africa tour – Rohit said: “I follow specific exercises to make sure that there are no injury problems in the future.. I feel absolutely fine. Again, in this sport injuries are inevitable.

A crowd allowed in Eden

The three ODIs in Ahmedabad had been played behind closed doors. But the Bengal Cricket Association has confirmed that the BCCI has allowed it to open the hospitality boxes at Eden and the upper level of the Club House for T20Is on February 16, 18 and 20. CAB President Avishek Dalmiya further requested the board “to kindly explore the possibility of allowing members of other upper tier blocs to cross the stadium” for the second and third matches.

Head coach Chetan Sharma will ring Eden’s bell tomorrow.