KL Rahul – The new Wall in the making

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KL Rahul – The new Wall in the making

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Amlan Majumdar

08/28/2016

T20 has compartmentalized cricket. There are T20 specialists, who also do well in the 50-over version, and then there are Test specialists, who also get along in the ODIs. In fact, there are only a handful of players who have been able to blur the differences and succeed in all the three formats, and even fewer who have been able to master all of them. Joe Root and Kane Williamson are the only batsmen who are currently present in the top-10 of the ICC rankings of all the three formats, and, on the other hand, none of the bowlers have been able to do so.

In India, someone like Cheteshwar Pujara, a classical Test batsman, has failed to make it in the limited overs format, while Rohit Sharma is struggling to grab a permanent place in the Indian Test side. Even Virat Kohli, who has been in God-like form recently, is yet to establish himself as a Test great.

No other players are forced to change their basic game to suit the demands of the shortest format as much as Test openers and spinners.

Aakash Chopra

Earlier this month, former Indian cricketer Aakash Chopra mentioned in one of his articles for ESPNcricinfo that the “T20 format would seriously affect the growth of Test openers and spinners in particular”, because “no other players are forced to change their basic game to suit the demands of the shortest format as much as Test openers and spinners”.

However, on Saturday, KL Rahul threatened to dispute this theory, or establish himself as an anomaly. On a sunny Florida afternoon, the 24-year-old became only the third Indian batsman to score a century in all the three formats, as he nearly guided India to a world-record run chase. It was a blazing knock built around some classical cricketing shots, and tempered with just the right amount of scoop shots and reverse sweeps. A Test opener who did not look unfazed or unhinged even while batting at a strike rate of 215—it is a site which is pretty rare in International cricket right now. But only 16 months earlier, this was not the case.

Rahul is a patient man—a virtue which is a liability in T20s, especially to a generation of fans who have the attention span of Cocker Spaniel.

In April 2015, Sunrisers Hyderabad had restricted Mumbai Indians to below-par total of 157 at the Wankhede Stadium, and were expected to cruise to a win. However, KL Rahul clambered his way to an ungainly 25 off 27 balls, and took away all the advantage his team had built in the first half of the match. An unpleasant swipe at a delivery from Mitchell McClenaghan ended his stay on the pitch and his team went on to lose the game by 20 runs. Those 27 balls depicted a man who was struggling to come to terms with the delirium surrounding the shorter format of the game. As he walked back to the pavilion, he was seen shadow-practicing an orthodox cover drive—a shot he would have offered to the ball which dismissed him, had he been in whites. His expression portrayed the face of a man who was worried about being irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, despite plundering runs in the Ranji Trophy. Rahul is a patient man—a virtue which is a liability in T20s, especially to a generation of fans who have the attention span of Cocker Spaniel.

However, Rahul was bestowed with a virtue which will always stay relevant—determination. He was determined to succeed, and he has come a long way since that night at Wankhede in the last 16 months.

‘Take good care of him,’ was what Rahul Dravid told Samuel Jayaraj, who had coached KL Rahul since his school days, after watching his namesake score a double century in an Under-13 match for Mangalore at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. The former Indian cricketer was quick to spot his talent, and since then he has mentored KL Rahul.

Ironically, Rahul had been conferred with the same label which had followed his idol throughout his career—a Test specialist. However, the meaning of that tag has changed a lot since the advent of T20s. Earlier, it was a compliment reserved for the most technically superior breed of cricketers, nowadays, it carries a dreadful intonation. You are cast off like a leper into the backwaters, while the flamboyant ones are revered. As a result, you will not be able to savour the huge rewards on offer in the shortest format.

Despite scoring tons of runs in Ranji trophy, KL Rahul's IPL career did not get off to a good start, and barely anyone noticed him. Last year, Samuel Jayaraj received a call from his student one night after the IPL was over. Rahul asked him,” Sir, what should I do to become a big hitter?”

Samuel knew that the boy, whom he had trained from the age of 10, at the other end of the line was desperate. Desperate to succeed in all the formats. Samuel's answer was simple, “Stop worrying”. And he did.

 © Getty Images

Rahul was diagnosed with dengue fever in August last year, and missed India's tour to Bangladesh, before a quadricep muscle injury kept him out of the Karnataka Premier League. But that time off the pitch was exactly what Rahul had required at that moment. He sat back and reviewed his game. He re-watched old matches and dismissals, and he realized “it was just important to keep things simple, stick to my basics and perform to my strengths, which is to play cricketing shots.”

Royal Challengers Bangalore picked him up in 2016, and Chris Gayle's paternity leave gave him the opportunity to establish himself in the side, and he grabbed it with both hands. There he also had the opportunity to pick on the cricketing brains of Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers and the duo helped him out significantly.

Rahul made peace with the fact that he will not be hitting big sixes like Gayle, or playing demolishing knocks like de Villiers. Virat Kohli, on the other hand, acted as the perfect example on how a batsman can score big by playing traditional shots. RCB's star-studded batting lineup also gave Rahul a sense of freedom he had rarely enjoyed. Right from his school days, Rahul had played in teams which were heavily dependent on him to score runs. That embedded a sense of responsibility in him, which almost restrained his gameplay.

“If Rahul was dismissed cheaply we would be all out for less than 100. The team banked on him to score runs to such an extent that he had to take twos or hit boundaries and take a single off the last delivery of an over to retain strike,” his coach Samuel had said earlier in an interview to the Indian Express.

However, at RCB, he was able to loosen up and play his strokes freely, and Kohli allowed him that freedom. While the RCB skipper and de Villiers grabbed most of the limelight, Rahul calmly went about his business and finished the season as RCB's third highest scorer, and in some matches, he even overshadowed his much high-profile teammates. However, he did not compromise on his cricketing shots. He got runs, but got them without changing his game.

IPL's success earned him his ODI debut for the national team in Zimbabwe, and he became the first Indian batsman to score a century on his ODI debut. But the more intriguing aspect of that innings at Harare was his ability to switch off from the IPL mode and be circumspect on a pitch which was assisting the bowlers. After defending for most of the opening phase of the innings, he moved up through the gears towards the end and saw India through to a comfortable win. Most people remember the six he hit to bring up his century, but the more striking feature was his ability to adapt to a different format with such ease, in such a short span of time.

The other trait which has impressed many is his ability to refrain himself from playing certain shots in the longer format. While KL Rahul loves to pull and hook in the shorter format, one would hardly see him use that shot in Test matches, at least not until he is set. Very few players have such discipline and determination.

He has already scored Test centuries in Australia, Sri Lanka, and West Indies. He has also showed his ability to score big in ODIs, albeit against a weak Zimbabwe side, and on Saturday, Rahul once again proved why he is currently the most improved batsman in the Indian side. With a lot of Test matches, which is still Rahul's forte, coming up in the next few months for India, KL Rahul can establish himself permanently into the Indian side. Kohli might have been India's star performer since the start of this year, but KL Rahul might turn out to be India's biggest find by the end of this season.

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