Run-hungry Kishan fuels middle order fire


Ishan Kishan may have carried drinks had KL Rahul been fit for the start of India’s Asia Cup campaign against Pakistan. But with Rahul unavailable initially, Kishan had a golden opportunity. The team sheet had listed him to bat at No. 3, but he eventually walked in at No. 5, a spot he hadn’t ever batted in previously in an ODI.

The move was met with some scepticism. Experts, most notably former India head coach Ravi Shastri, felt he was best suited to be a powerplay enforcer at the top of the order. But on Saturday, while Kishan wasn’t quite in the middle during the powerplay, he proved to be an able enforcer anyway. And just when the raging selection debate seemed all but settled, Kishan may have fuelled it even more.

His punchy 82 off 81 balls was pivotal in India staging a superb recovery from 66 for 4 in the 15th over. For now, while it’s a headache the team management will welcome with open arms, it also opens up another possibility of Kishan being a shoo-in as a reserve batter, one that Tilak Varma and Suryakumar Yadav are already vying for in India’s World Cup squad.

It could be significant on several counts. One, it helps India throw in a left-handed element that they lack in the top order. Two, it brings with it the possibility of having an extra seamer in the squad. But for now, this much is clear. Kishan has controlled the controllables in the best possible manner.

His maiden knock against Pakistan didn’t come without its fair share of challenges. Kishan ran into a red-hot pace attack controlling the tempo of the game by making giant incisions. Shaheen Shah Afridi was moving them off the seam both ways, Haris Rauf was effortlessly cranking it up into the late 140kph, and Naseem Shah was bowling unplayable lifters.

Kishan enjoyed an early streak of luck when a genuine outside edge off Naseem flew past the slip fielder; he was nearly done in by sharp away movement as the ball took the leading edge. This, coupled with the odd delivery scooting low to the wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan, had the potential to create doubts for the batters. Kishan, though, seemed remarkably clear of his plans of taking the bowlers on.

His first boundary was a six, off the seventh ball. Rauf had erred in length, and Kishan brought out his fast hands and flashing blade to slash it over square third. The perception is Kishan likes pace on the ball early – who doesn’t? – but he also adapted wonderfully to spin, wasting no time in putting the pressure back on Shadab Khan. Shadab had struggled to land the ball properly, and by bashing him for two fours down the ground to full tosses, Kishan got Babar Azam thinking.

Within no time, Kishan’s counterpunch played a hand in India’s recovery, with the fifth-wicket pair raising a half-century stand off just 52 balls. His innings wasn’t just about being gung-ho for the sake of it; there was a keenness to play himself in and give himself an opportunity to maximise once the platform was set. He initially milked the runs off Mohammad Nawaz and then took him on – rocking back to cut and bisect a packed off-side ring, or using his feet to launch him for six down the ground.

Kishan’s was largely a game without half measures, and dotted with awareness aplenty, especially when Babar brought back Afridi for another crack when the partnership was beginning to flourish.

“He took the threat out of Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz [with] the way he played normal cricketing shots – that’s a positive sign,” former India batter Wasim Jaffer told ESPNcricinfo. “That’s what you want to see from Ishan. We all know he can muscle the ball, but the way he manoeuvred strike, batted for lengths and stitched the partnership [with Hardik] together was a mature knock.”

As Kishan and Hardik brought up their century stand, there was a sense that they had firmly wrested control back from Pakistan. Suddenly, Pakistan seemed to be doing all the running. As a century loomed, Kishan was cramping. His dismissal in trying to pull a ball that wasn’t all that short may have been down to fatigue. But as he walked off, there was genuine satisfaction and applause from the dugout.

Rohit Sharma has long vouched for flexibility. This was a shining example of a batter showing his wares when thrown into the deep end against one of the format’s best attacks. It was a ringing endorsement of Kishan’s own ability to accept challenges and rise to them. Five weeks back in the West Indies, Kishan made three back-to-back ODI half-centuries as an opener on sluggish pitches.

In constructing a fourth, Kishan may have perhaps played his best ODI knock to date. Was it more satisfying than his double-hundred last December against Bangladesh? Perhaps. What it did give you a glimpse into, though, was Kishan’s mindset of firmly staying in the present and making the most of every opportunity he gets.

In a way, Kishan’s nascent ODI career has followed a similar trajectory to Rahul’s. When Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit had made the opening spot theirs for the majority of the period from 2013-2020, Rahul found his niche in the middle order towards the latter end of it. Now with Rohit and Shubman Gill likely to be the openers, Kishan has to find his calling elsewhere. Saturday was a fleeting evidence of him having put his hands up to do a job asked of him.

Kishan will potentially have one more crack in a similar role against Nepal before India have to cross the bridge with the Rahul situation. But this much is clear: even in a washout, their decision to bat in Kandy helped them answer the question if Kishan could bat in the middle order. He very well can.

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