A resettling Rahul
If there is any batsman in world cricket who has undergone the brutal tests of sport, it is KL Rahul. But over the years, the Indian white-ball vice captain has fought, and fought hard.
KL Rahul’s Test debut, or international debut for that matter, was far from impressive. It was chaotic, confused, and disorganized. The year was 2014, and up against the likes of Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon, on Boxing Day at the ever-intimidating MCG, the then 22-year-old Rahul nervously took guard. There was immense hype surrounding his debut, especially after his magnificent performance for South Zone against Central in the final of the 2014–15 Duleep Trophy. Batting at his usual opening spot, Rahul had bludgeoned 185 (233) in the first innings and 130 (152) in the second, in a closely contested losing cause. But batting for South Zone and Karnataka is one thing. Batting for India is a completely different side of the coin. A side Rahul experienced the harsh way.
Batting at a far from ideal number six, he was dismissed off the 8th ball he faced, to an ugly sweep, for just 3. Being promoted to number three in the second innings proved to be equally disastrous, as he succumbed to another unattractive, mistimed hoick off Mitchell Johnson, this time for a solitary run. His position in the side was immediately questioned, an issue he would come to encounter innumerable times in the following years. But in his very next Test, at Sydney, Rahul stroked his way to a masterful 110, showing glimpses of his hidden genius. But who would have imagined, that a boy upon whom so many hopes were pinned, would have to fight for his place in the Indian team across formats for the next seven years?
Rahul made inroads into the international circuit after making his ODI and T20I debut against Zimbabwe in 2016, even scoring a century on ODI debut, the first Indian to do so. However, the opener’s spot in limited overs internationals was rightfully reserved by the prolific duo of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. While in the Test arena, he was up against Dhawan and Murali Vijay. Despite consistent performances, he was never a regular customer in the Indian team. But sooner or later that had to change, and thankfully for Rahul, it did. Cut to 2021, exactly seven years since his debut, and Rahul is now the Indian vice captain in white ball cricket, as well as the first choice opener across all three formats, only behind Rohit Sharma. He has since appeared in 41 Tests, and has scored at least one Test century in every country that he’s played in, and he’s scored seven of them thus far. Quite interestingly though, Rahul will have to attribute this change of fortunes to sheer luck. Ahead of the touring India’s first Test against England in mid-2021, Mayank Agarwal, who was to open with Sharma, was hit on the head by a bouncer while batting in the nets, deeming him unfit for the game. In came Rahul, and made a solid statement by scoring 84 and 26 in a rain-affected drawn affair. He further solidified his case with a classy 129 at Lord’s in the next game, finally establishing himself as India’s second-best top order bet.
Though it is odd that it took a player of Rahul’s calibre so long to cement his place in the Test side, he only has himself to blame. From January 2018 through to January 2019, the Indians embarked on three massive away Test series’. First South Africa, followed by England, and finally Australia. And KL Rahul was a mess on all three tours. He scored 30 runs from four innings in South Africa with a top effort of 16. Then in England, Rahul played all five matches, scoring 299 runs at a below-par average of 29.90. He came good in the final Test at The Oval, blasting 37 and 149 in a losing cause. But it was back to the drawing board against Australia, as Rahul failed miserably in the first three Tests, amassing only 57 runs in five innings at a disgusting average of 11.40. He was dropped for the fourth Test, handing a debut to none other than Mayank Agarwal. It was evident that a complete revitalization had to be done on Rahul’s Test game. The only question was, will it be too late?
Fortunately for Rahul, it happened just in the nick of time. And his Boxing Day hundred at Centurion in 2021 is a magnificent turnaround from what transpired on the same day in 2014. Batting on a pitch known to eat batsmen alive, against a bowling lineup consisting of the ferocious Kagiso Rabada and dedicated Lungi Ngidi, Rahul produced a performance of the very highest order. A true Test innings in every sense of the word. He played 260 balls for his 123, in an innings characterised by incredible patience and immaculate shot selection. Batting long in South Africa is an arduous task. It is known to be a fast bowler’s paradise. The pitch starts misbehaving in the most unorthodox ways imaginable, and the movement in the air can change from none to immense in a matter of minutes. For someone who had a torrid outing in Protea land the last time around, Rahul’s hundred is even more satisfying. Not only for himself, but for everyone who has seen him sway through the ups and downs of the cricketing realm.
It’s probably safe to say that KL Rahul is the most technically sound batsman in the world at the moment. After all, it does take a lot to have Brian Lara say that you’re his favourite batsman to watch. It is also safe to say that Test match batting is an art. An art that has almost been nullified by the modern usage of scoops and paddles and sweeps and switch hits. Leaving the ball outside off stump is an ability so forgotten that even Virat Kohli cannot conform to it. And if Virat Kohli can’t, no one can, right? Wrong. KL Rahul can. The 29-year-old was quick to raise his arms above his head or tuck his bat in front of his back pad as he allowed the ball a safe, uninterrupted passage through to the keeper. Rahul watched from the other end as his captain flashed his blade at a delivery that landed in Zimbabwe, only to nick off to first slip. He made sure not to deal with any delivery that was outside his eyeline, and reaped humongous rewards for his discipline.
Sadly, such innings of patience and poise are rare sightings in the world of cricket now. Sure, Travis Head’s 148-ball 152 in the first Test of the ongoing Ashes was a treat to watch. But if that was a treat, Rahul’s 123 was a whole buffet. There’s just something about a calm, composed, unfussy period of batting that is so pleasing to the eye. It’s a job that’s got miserably low employees. Apart from Rahul, hardly a handful come to mind. Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne, the world’s number one Test batsman, surely walks into the list. Despite the occasional waft outside off, English skipper Joe Root is quite secure as well. Rohit Sharma too has made unbelievable changes to his otherwise naturally aggressive game to emerge successful in the longest format. Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne, Kiwi Tom Latham, and South African captain Dean Elgar are a few others that remind us what Test match batting really is. It needs self-control, it needs impenetrable technique, and most importantly, it needs patience.
Virat Kohli’s susceptibility on the 4th-8th stump channel is massively attributed to him growing restless after a string of dots, resulting in him tampering with a ball not there to be hit. A true Test batsmen knows that the bowler is a human, not a machine. There will be deliveries straying down the leg side, or on the stumps, or a loose bouncer, or a full toss. Using those unharmful balls to the fullest effect will bring the batsman enough runs to put the opposition under pressure.
Yes, aggression is hugely important, but miscalculated aggression only ever leads to self destruction. That is the rule not only for cricket, but for life. Test cricket is a twisted, uneven road, like the ones you will find on a mountain. Those who drive with control and authority find it to be a wonderful challenge. However, a little lapse in concentration and discipline can divagate an individual into the depths of scepticism and unpredictability, climbing out of which can take up an entire career.