T20 WC: India, Bangladesh eye semi-final slot; all eyes on KL Rahul

India cannot afford another slip-up as they eye a semifinal place, and all other things being equal, they should be able to put it past Bangladesh, against whom they hold a 10-1 record in T20Is

India T20 World Cup 2022
India-Bangladesh clashes, as lopsided as the record might be across formats, have carried an added edge and needle over the last few years. There have been several close contests, not least dramatic last-ball wins for India in the 2016 World Cup Super 10 game in Bengaluru and the final of the Nidahas Trophy in Colombo in 2018 | Pic: Twitter

One of the talking points of India’s campaign at the T20 World Cup has been KL Rahul’s less-than-impressive form. The vice-captain warmed up for the tournament quite nicely, with 74 and 57 against Western Australia in a practice game and against Australia in an official warm-up game respectively, but his bat has gone as cold as the unseasonal weather at this time of the year in this country since the start of the tournament proper.

With each passing game, the scrutiny on the opening batsman has grown manifold. It isn’t just the lack of runs that has been worrying. Rahul has looked tentative, uncertain, unsure of where his next run will come from. He has eked out 22 runs in three innings, most of them unconvincingly, and especially with someone of the ball-striking abilities of Risbabh Pant warming the bench, it is inevitable that questions will be asked about his continued presence in the playing XI.

KL Rahul
With each passing game, the scrutiny on KL Rahul has grown manifold

To the team management, it’s almost flabbergasting that one would question Rahul’s place in the side. Clearly, he is rated very highly and not just because he has two T20I hundreds or six centuries in all T20s. There is tremendous belief that he is just a few deliveries away from turning the corner, with the brains trust of skipper Rohit Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid merely waiting for vindication.

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They will be hoping that wait ends on Wednesday, when India are due to take on Bangladesh in their fourth Super 12 Group 2 game at the beautiful Adelaide Oval. Coming off a five-wicket loss to South Africa, India can’t afford another slip-up as they eye a semifinal place, and all other things being equal, should be able to put it past Bangladesh, against whom they hold a 10-1 record in T20Is.

Like India, Bangladesh also have four points from three games, their only loss thus far also coming against South Africa. But unlike their opponents, who play Zimbabwe in their final game on Sunday, Bangladesh round off their Super 12 proceedings against Pakistan and so the mountain in front of them is a lot steeper than the one that confronts India.

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India-Bangladesh clashes, as lopsided as the record might be across formats, have carried an added edge and needle over the last few years. There have been several close contests, not least dramatic last-ball wins for India in the 2016 World Cup Super 10 game in Bengaluru and the final of the Nidahas Trophy in Colombo in 2018. India’s greater experience has carried the day against Bangladesh’s excitable passion, though in a break from norm, their skipper Shakib Al Hasan announced on Tuesday that India begin as favourites because they are here to win the cup, and that Bangladesh will look for an ‘upset’ win on the morrow.

Teams don’t read too much into pronouncements from the opposition camp, so India will hardly dwell on Shakib’s comments just as Bangladesh will take Dravid’s remarks about them – ‘We respect them a lot. They’re a very good team. This format and this World Cup has really shown us that honestly, you can’t take any team lightly’ – with no more gravity than the diplomatic utterances of the opposition coach.

India had pencilled in optional sessions in two stints on Tuesday afternoon, one to hone their batting and bowling disciplines and the other to focus on fielding under lights in the night, ostensibly in reaction to their below-par display against South Africa on Sunday. The weather, however, had the last say, driving them indoors for just one crisp session that was attended, among others, by Virat Kohli, Dinesh Karthik and the beleaguered Rahul.

Karthik’s presence was significant because he left the field after 15 overs during South Africa’s chase with back spasms. Even though he hasn’t been very successful with the bat, the team management will try and give him as much time as possible to recover totally, though there is no guarantee that even in that case, Pant will not replace him in the middle. That, in a break from norm, Rahul also decided to hit the nets is a pointer to his desire, if not anxiety, to hit a few off the middle of the bat so that he is in a good frame of mind when he fronts up on Wednesday, weather relenting.

For now, there is no pressure on Rahul to hold his place. The security that comes with enjoying the decision-makers’ confidence has no parallel; it allows the individual concerned to worry only about delivering for the team, not about keeping his place in the side. With Rahul, one suspects, it’s about a slight shift in mindset because as his head coach pointed out, there is no dearth of skill and class when it comes to the right-hander.

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“He’s a fantastic player and he’s got a proven track record,” Dravid pointed out, almost taken aback that his namesake’s place could even be doubted. “These things can happen in a T20 game sometimes. It’s been a tough — it’s not been that easy for the top-order batsmen. This tournament has been pretty challenging. Maybe a lot of you were not there, but in the practice game against Australia with Mitchell Starc and Patrick Cummins, it was a pretty good attack, he batted superbly to get 50 or 60.

“We know his quality, we know his ability, he’s really well suited for these conditions, these pitches. He’s got a very good, strong back-foot game, which is very much required in these conditions. We’re pretty confident and happy with the way he’s hitting it.”

These words should be music to Rahul’s ears, should he hear them. If India nurture ambitions of going all the way, as they should, Rahul will be a vital part of that journey. For confidence as much as for the team’s sake, it’s essential that he sheds his lean trot immediately. Bangladesh aren’t the friendliest attack going and the pitch might play a few tricks, given how much time it has spent under the covers, but Rahul must prove the adage ‘class will out’ if he has to rid himself of the attention and criticism snapping at his heels.

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