“I don’t want gorgeous 20s and 30s. Give me ugly 100s."
These, or different variations of these, are words you’ll hear from coaches to kids across academies through the world. The message is ingrained in you especially if you’re a top order batsman. It’s drilled into your mind even more if you’re an opener.
Two batsmen in India’s top four will be revisiting those messages. KL Rahul and Vijay Shankar. They’ve both had starts each time they’ve batted, but big scores haven’t come.
Since Rahul was forced back to the top of the order following an injury to Shikhar Dhawan, he has made 57, 30 and 48 against Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Indies respectively. The toughest phase for an opener is the first six overs or so; Hashim Amla calls it an ‘assessment period’. “If you get past it then great. If not, you watch it from the change room," he said explaining his dismissal to Jasprit Bumrah in the earlier game.
Rahul faced stiff assessments in each game - from Mohammad Amir against Pakistan, Mujeeb ur Rahman against Afghanistan and Kemar Roach against West Indies. He crossed them all, doing all the hard work to bat 24, 15 and 21 overs in the three games.
And then, he fell. The dismissals have been of various types too - a tame chip to cover off Wahab Riaz, a reverse sweep to point off Mohammad Nabi, and bowled by a lovely inswinger by Jason Holder.
The Pakistan dismissal was maybe a case of distraction - Wahab was forced to move around the stumps after being warned for running on the danger zone. The first ball he bowled from the new angle, Rahul was out.
It would be unfair to say ‘Rahul threw it away’, especially based on the reverse sweep off Nabi. These are shots players practise day in and day out, and Rahul saw an opportunity to find some runs. The execution, though, was off - he didn’t sweep the ball, he carved it in the air.
“I wouldn’t say it was a bad shot. It was a shot I play all the time. And more often than not I hit it for four, so I get it away," he said about the reverse sweep. “But unfortunately I didn’t execute it. But the planning and the timing of that shot maybe was questionable because I needed to stitch up a partnership with Virat."
These are the choices Rahul will have to ponder over, on how to approach his game after he crosses the assessment phase. If you work that out and still get a ball like the one Holder bowled, well, you can’t do much.
“That is what is the most difficult thing about batting, isn’t it? You might look like you’re not in any trouble for 100 balls, 120 balls or 50, 60 balls, and then sometimes you end up making a mistake. One ball gets you sometimes. As a bowler, you’re allowed to bowl good balls."
It’s too early to be harsh on Rahul’s conversion, but he knows its importance more than anyone. He faced a similar issue in Test cricket at one point when he scored 10 half-centuries in 17 innings, without converting even one to a century. Those were all gorgeous, classy fifties. But it’s the ugly centuries that matter for openers.
Vijay too is facing a similar situation. He too did all the hardwork but results haven’t been big - 29 against Afghanistan, 14 against West Indies. Not enough for a top order batsman.
Like Rahul, Vijay too has been dismissed in different manners - lbw to a sweep off leg-spinner Rahmat Shah against Afghanistan, caught behind off a good ball by Kemar Roach against West Indies.
The Afghanistan game was an opportunity missed, just like it was for Rahul. On a tricky wicket, he got his eye in and stitched a 58-run partnership with Kohli handling spinners without trouble. And then he played across the line, falling straight into a trap. Seeing Vijay driving well down the ground, Afghanistan had a mid-off and a long-off, keeping deep square-leg region vacant. Vijay was tempted and dismissed.
Vijay started fairly well against West Indies too, striking three boundaries. But like Rahul, he too got a good ball that he edged behind. There’s not much you can do as batsmen for such dismissals, but it leaves India in a ‘strange’ situation.
“It’s a strange one because he had a decent game against Pakistan. I think against Afghanistan on that pitch he looked really assured. Shot selection, again, we discussed with him for that game. Last game, again, he came out, he looked really good, and he gets a beautiful ball from Kemar Roach," Kohli said of Vijay.
“So you can’t really sit down and pinpoint things, but I personally felt he looked really solid. There’s not much that needs to be tinkered. Sometimes in cricket you just need a bit of luck to get over from 30 to 60, and then you play a defining knock for the team. He’s very close to that, and we’re very confident he’s going to end up playing that kind of knock for us. He’s in a good head space as well, but sometimes in cricket these things happen where you don’t necessarily feel you’ve committed any mistakes until the time you get out, and that’s it. So you do need sometimes a bit of luck, especially in the shorter format, to sort of take that risk and get over the line."
The difference between Rahul and Vijay’s situations is that Vijay has the added pressure of other batsmen waiting on the bench, and lack of experience given his late induction to the team. With Rahul, one can expect that a big knock is around the corner given he has done it in the past in different formats. There’s not much data to say the same about Vijay, but the team trusts him based on what they see.
Either way, it’s up to the two to score big, even if they appear ugly.