Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma the focus in second Afghanistan T20I tie | Cricket

Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are no strangers to the spotlight. If the scrutiny feels a bit different right now, it’s because they are polarising opinion on whether they merit a place in the India set-up for perhaps the first time since they established themselves. It’s a legitimate discussion in the T20 scheme of things given that they hadn’t played for India in the format for 14 months before their recall for the Afghanistan series.

India’s captain Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli during a practice session ahead of the second T20I cricket match between India and Afghanistan, at Holkar Cricket Stadium in Indore(PTI)

The debate is likely to linger all the way through the build-up to the T20 World Cup. For the time being though, Sharma and Kohli have an opportunity to get runs and show that they can mould their game to the ever-changing demands of the shortest format. Sharma didn’t enjoy a smooth beginning to the three-match series in Mohali, run out for zero off the second ball of the innings after a mix-up with Shubman Gill.

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Kohli missed that game to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. Both will be hoping to launch big hits with impactful knocks in the second T20I at Indore’s Holkar Stadium on Sunday, against an Afghanistan attack missing the injured Rashid Khan.

While Sharma and Kohli are second to none when it comes to run-making ability, the way they score their runs has to probably change. With run rates constantly on the rise in the T20 format, India’s batting template seemed archaic when they endured back-to-back disappointments in T20 World Cups in the UAE and Australia in 2021 and 2022. Sharma and Kohli were at the forefront of these campaigns and their omission for the T20s India played in 2023 seemed to imply that the selectors were moving on.

But having been picked for these matches against Afghanistan, it’s likely that both will embark on that journey to the Caribbean and United States in June. That they are in prime form isn’t to be contested. In the ODI World Cup two months ago, Kohli topped the run-scoring charts with 765 runs in 11 innings at an average of 95.62 while Sharma finished second with 597 runs at 54.27.

The India skipper’s approach at the 50-over marquee event came as a breath of fresh air, showing that he’s willing to attack from the outset. But it’s also pertinent to note that his T20 returns have dipped alarmingly in recent years. In 2022, he was averaging below 30 and striking at under 140 in T20Is. He hasn’t crossed 400 runs in an IPL season since 2019.

In Kohli’s case, he is an ace chaser who can tailor his approach as per the asking rate. His mastery was illustrated emphatically during his unbeaten 82 against Pakistan at the 2022 T20 World Cup, steering India to a four-wicket victory in a run chase of 160 from 31/4. But when India are batting first, his approach tends to occasionally border on overcaution.

In the time that Sharma and Kohli were away from the T20 set-up, the youngsters have been able to make a strong impression. Whether it’s Yashasvi Jaiswal, Tilak Varma, Ruturaj Gaikwad or Rinku Singh, they have all had their moments to suggest that India’s supposed second line of T20 batters is ready for the responsibility. Consider adding Shivam Dube to this list after the left-handed batter struck an unbeaten 40-ball 60 in the first T20I at Mohali.

“It was a very good performance in the last match. I hope to do even better for the team. The plan is to perform well and keep contributing with bat and ball,” Dube told reporters ahead of the second T20I.

Dube certainly solidifies the bench strength, but most of these youngsters could argue that their time is now as another T20 World Cup looms. Particularly Jaiswal and Rinku, who have done all that was asked of them in recent months. Jaiswal’s 15 T20Is for India have yielded 430 runs at a strike rate of 159.25. Jaiswal was unavailable for the first T20I due to a sore groin, but he’s likely to slot in at the top of the order alongside Sharma if he has recovered. “As of now, we will be opening with Rohit and Jaiswal,” India coach Rahul Dravid had said on the eve of the opening game.

Even more irresistible is the case made by Rinku lower down the order. His breakthrough came at last year’s IPL, where his exploits included plundering five sixes in the final over against Gujarat Titans seamer Yash Dayal. The 26-year-old hasn’t put a foot wrong for India either, returning 278 runs in 13 T20Is at a strike rate of 180.51.

It’s unclear who among these many contenders will eventually make it to India’s 15-member squad. With India having only two more T20Is before the World Cup, a clearer picture may emerge only when IPL commences.

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