The "Dhoni, Dhoni" chants reverberated around the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Sunday. No, the former India captain wasn't around; this was the crowd showing its displeasure towards KL Rahul for a missed stumping to reprieve Steven Smith. Without the benefit of replays, it would have been hard to tell that the ball had ricocheted off Smith's pads to evade Rahul.
Virat Kohli didn't like what he heard and prompted the crowd to go "KL, KL" as he was shown on the big screen. Soon enough, the crowd changed their chants to "Rahul, Rahul". This wasn't the most significant moment of the game, of course, but it told you how much the India captain values Rahul's presence and he compared the "sacrifice" with the one the other Rahul - Dravid - had made at the 2003 World Cup for the team's balance.
"If you look at the 2003 World Cup where Rahul bhai started keeping, the balance became different because you could play an extra batter and guys at the top could really play positive cricket," Kohli said at the post-match briefing after India had bounced back to win the three-match series 2-1 against Australia.
Even though Kohli finished as the Player of the Series, Rahul played a massive hand, too: from doubling up as a wicketkeeper to marshalling the lower order to opening the batting - performing every role with an air of nonchalance while providing the much-required balance the team was after. "So, look, he is very open to playing anywhere because he is a proper batsman who can do you good in any format and at any position in the game," Kohli said on Rahul performing multiple roles.
Rishabh Pant's concussion in the Mumbai ODI might have prompted India to experiment with Rahul as the wicketkeeper for a game or two, but Kohli said the team management was keen to extend that to the upcoming New Zealand series, too. Kohli was emphatic in his view that Rahul deserved a longer run with the gloves before he was judged, and having endured his fair share of being moved up and down in the batting order, and being in and out of the team, it was only fair he be given the extra opportunities in his new role. At the same time, Kohli didn't want to be drawn into commenting on whether that would mean Pant, Sanju Samson and possibly Dhoni fall back in the pecking order.
"That was a spicy question," Kohli said jokingly, when asked about the wicketkeeping race. "Rahul really brings in a good balance if he can keep and bat that well in that position (No. 5). He has come into the slot and he has done well so we will have to persist with that a little bit and see where that takes us and not necessarily be confused about the other options we have."
The one significant advantage India get from playing Rahul as wicketkeeper is they can field an additional batsman in Manish Pandey, who is one of the best fielders in the squad as he showed in Rajkot, taking a screamer to dismiss David Warner. "So I think lack of clarity in terms of positions has really hurt us in the past. Now that we understand that this feels right, we will go ahead with that for a while and figure out if this is the right thing to do or not," Kohli said. "You can chop and change immediately and create confusion among the group. I don't see any reason why we should change this balance. It has done well for the team and we will continue with the same for a while."
Rahul kept his side of the bargain by scoring fluently in three outings, including a match-winning 80 off 52 balls in India's must-win game in Rajkot, notwithstanding his yo-yoing batting position. In Mumbai, he batted at No. 3, was pushed to No. 5 in Rajkot and finally opened the batting in Shikhar Dhawan's absence in Bengaluru. In Rajkot, he was mostly tidy behind the stumps and even quipped, "I hope I've kept our bowlers happy." His tall frame hasn't been an obvious hindrance yet to his wicketkeeping, but it is one thing keeping as a back-up, and another to do it regularly. What does help Rahul is strong fundamentals that helped him become a state regular as a wicketkeeper in age-group cricket, before he made batting his primary responsibility.
In the recent Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Rahul's wicketkeeping skills were much lauded, especially under pressure in a tense final, in which he calmly gathered a flat throw from the deep in the final over to effect a crucial run-out that proved to be the turning point. Having also kept regularly in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the 50-over competition, prior to that, while also opening the batting, Rahul has shown he has what it takes, and Kohli is happy to back him for the moment.
"He won't go slam bang from ball one but he can do what he did in Rajkot just by playing good cricketing shots," Kohli said of Rahul's batting. "So I think solid game plan and understanding of his game is helping. He has reflected on what he needs to do in the last five-six months and he has come a long way. These are good signs for us. It gives a boost to the team because he keeps as well. It definitely allows us to play an extra batsman, which strengthens our batting massively. That is a very important factor as far as the team balance is concerned."