Before the start of India's five-match T20I series against England, Virat Kohli had stated explicitly that India's first-choice opening combination would be KL Rahul partnering Rohit Sharma. Since then, India are trailing 2-1 in the series and Rahul has strung together a binary score sequence of 1, 0, 0, having lasted a combined 14 balls across three innings.
India have other options at the top of the order - Shikhar Dhawan is in the squad, Ishan Kishan made a blazingly successful debut at the top of the order, and Mayank Agarwal is on the fringes too - but for now, Kohli and batting coach Vikram Rathour have unequivocally backed Rahul, describing him as among the best in the world, and in Team India.
Asked about Rahul's lean run at the post-match presentation, Kohli told host broadcaster Star Sports that form in T20 cricket could turn around very quickly, pointing to his own example where he shrugged off a run of poor scores to hit 73* and 77* in the last two T20Is.
"Well I was going through a lean patch about two games ago," Kohli smiled. "These things turn around very quickly. For us, he's been a champion player. If you look at his stats in the last two-three years, they are probably better than anyone in world cricket in T20s. He'll continue to be one of our main batters along with Rohit at the top of the order. We don't have any concerns there. T20 is a game which is a very instinctive game. We know once he starts playing positively and a few shots come off, it's a matter of five-six balls in this format and suddenly you're back in this zone."
Rathour echoed Kohli's words about Rahul's record in the format. Since January 1, 2019, Rahul's 2262 runs as an opener are the third-highest in the world. In that period, he has averaged 48.12 at a strike rate of 137.50 at the top of the order. In that same period, his returns for India are 761 runs at 38.05 with a strike rate of 138.11.
"Anybody can have a lean phase," Rathour said at the post-match press conference. "Last one year, I think KL has been our best batsman in the T20 format. He's averaging more than 40 with a strike rate of 145 [Rahul averaged 44.70 with a strike rate of 141.52 since January 2019 till the start of this series]. So three failures does not change that fact, that he's maybe the best batsman we have in that format, and he's done really well for us in the past year. I think this is the time that, as a team, we need to support him. Absolutely sure he will come out of this lean phase that he's going through."
Rahul was bowled by Jofra Archer while dragging on in the first T20I, poked at Sam Curran to be caught behind in the second T20I, and was castled through the gate by Mark Wood in the third. The extra pace by Archer and Wood contributed to two dismissals, while he was leaden-footed against Curran - all of which could point to rustiness too. Before this series, Rahul had last played a game on December 8, the third and final T20I against Australia in Sydney. He has spent the intervening four months mostly in bio-secure bubbles with the Indian team.
"They do get a little rusty when they're sitting out," Rathour acknowledged. "The best we can do is keep providing them practice. They've been having lot of net sessions and they've been batting in the middle also, nets session on the side wickets. That's all they can do and you just hope that one innings, one shot, and he'll be back in form."
Rathour also said that the team management were aware of what their best XI was, and intended to continue backing them.
"It's great that we have this kind of bench strength. People are doing well and we have lots of players who can fill up places in case we need them," he said. "But as a team management, we know and understand which is our best XI, and those are the players we need to back. So unless there is a real, real big fall in form or some injury, I think we should stick to our best XI and hopefully they'll come good.
"Whoever is the player we feel will do the job for the team should be playing. People go through lean phases, that happens in cricket. Sometimes you will get out early. But if you're talking about KL Rahul again, he's done so well for us in the past year, a couple of failures does not change the fact that he is one of the main players we have for this format."