Why it is hard to ignore KL Rahul anymore

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Why it is hard to ignore KL Rahul anymore

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Agransh Anand


In a cricket-obsessed nation where a national team call-up is hard to come by and it is​ easy to get dropped, KL Rahul comes out as a player who has overcome his initial pitfalls to make the most of the limited chances.

A reckless, expansive sweep to get dismissed on your test debut is bound to get you some harsh criticism. Even by the standards of the modern day, T20 dominated cricket, when even the purists of the game have come to terms with aggressive batting and flashy stroke play, the sheer audacity of the shot was not met with applause. And there was worse to come when another brain-freeze moment in the second innings gave Australia a sniff at victory at MCG. It’s another story that the match ended in a draw when some order was restored by rest of the team.

K L Rahul did not have an ideal start to his first international outing in traditional whites. For someone who had found his way through in the Indian team, where every spot was up for grabs at the slightest hint of non-performance, a shoddy display of batsmanship had questions being thrown at the team management from all corners – there was no doubt about his skills – Rahul had been a known performer across all the levels of cricket he had played so far, Under-19, Domestic, India A. But to use the cliché, Test cricket is a different ball game altogether. It’s understandable though that at 22, playing at MCG and trying to save the match on the final day, pressure might get the better off you. Everyone is allowed one bad match, though.

The scene shifted to Sydney for the New Year’s Test. If Rohit Sharma was made to sit out for Melbourne test, it was Shikhar Dhawan’s exclusion that paved the way for K L Rahul. India’s bowling had already taken a beating, and the openers were staring at a total of 572 when they walked out to bat. It didn’t help when Murali Vijay, was dismissed early. Now was the time for Rahul to step up, bury the ghosts of a horrible debut and justify his selection ahead of an established opener. And boy he did!! Runs started to come, assisted by Kohli’s presence at the other end, he built his innings cautiously. There were cover drives, runs steered behind point, flicks through mid-wicket and more importantly the art of leaving the ball was applied to full. After a dozen hits to the fence and standing tall for 300 minutes at the crease, he crossed the highly-adored three figure mark.

A century, however, does not guarantee you a permanent place in the team. Another aspect of cricket which Rahul learnt quite early in the day – India had already found a new set of openers in Dhawan and Vijay. Pujara despite his inconsistent show in England and New Zealand still boasted of technique and numbers which made it hard to replace him, Kohli could not be touched and Rahane had made No. 5 position his own, 100 at Lord’s was a testimony to it. Amends were made with the fact that Rahul would be a fringe opener, or at times could bat at No. 3 in case one of the top order batsmen sits out with an injury. There weren’t any discussions about Rahul’s inclusion in shorter formats of the game. The team combination was too well settled to tamper with.

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Cricket, as they say, is a great leveller. 20 months since his MCG debut, K L Rahul’s fortunes have swung both ways. Shikhar Dhawan got injured and Rahul was included in the side for the 2nd test match against Sri Lanka and he responded with a century yet again, this time in a winning cause to level the series against the Lankans. But just when things had started to go in right direction, he got injured and was forced to miss the final test. Pujara scored a match-winning 146 and India won the series. Once again, Rahul was overlooked for South Africa’s tour to India. The series was won comfortably 3-0 and Rahul’s absence was not rued upon in a tournament that was dominated by turning tracks and where bowlers for a change had an upper hand right throughout. India was not to play another test match for eight months.

In a sport like cricket where you are engaged only in one format, eight months is a lot of time to go out of public’s memory. There is a high degree of risk involved that some other player might latch on to opportunities and replace you. If not for IPL 2016, K L Rahul too would have been overlooked for the T20s and ODIs India was to play during the course of the season. Rahul had been a part of Sunrisers Hyderabad in the past, but barely had anything significant to show on his resume as a shorter format player. Now that he was in a side which boasted of some of the most powerful strikers of the ball in Gayle, DeVilliers and Kohli, was another factor which saw him crumble under pressure during the early stages of the tournament. He was trying too much for far too less in return and when you have a seasoned match-winner like Virat Kohli batting alongside you and leading you, hurriedness in the execution of shots does not bode well. Tattoos and hairstyle were being discussed more than batting.

After a string of low scores, a pep talk from the skipper during the course of the match against Pune, Rahul scored consecutive 50s in three matches. More value was put on the wicket. In Chris Gayle’s absence, he got a chance to open the innings for RCB and gave them a solid foundation to post huge totals. His prowess with the bat and makeshift wicket keeping abilities earned him a call for ODI and T20 team for Zimbabwe tour. What followed was a century on debut and a Player of the Series award in ODIs. There was no doubt that Rahul was now in a frame of mind where he wanted to make the best use of any opportunity he was handed over. He was making his presence felt to feature his name permanently on the team sheet.

The West Indies tour could not have come at a better time for him. Though given a chance only after Dhawan got injured during the first test, he went on to score his 3rd test century in the second test match. If not for rain on the 4th day and some quality batting by the hosts, this century too could have ended on a winning note. He carried on his good form for the remainder of the series which saw India lifting the trophy for the 3rd consecutive time in West Indies. Though many would argue that the quality of attack was not one of the best in business, one just has to look at the change in Rahul’s approach and attitude towards the game. There is now a prize that he puts on his wicket.

The high point of the tour was the ease with which he adapted for T20 games played in theUSA. The first T20 saw West Indies, current World Champions, amass 245 and India needed to bat out of their skin to chase down such a mammoth total. Agreed that dropped catches go on to make or break a cricketer’s career but they are as much a part of the game as those which seem impossible to people watching from the stands. After an initial stroke of luck, Rahul took on the role of the aggressor and an anchor for the rest of the innings. The ground might be small, and pitch could be a belter, but you still need to have the ability to absorb the pressure and hit the ball out of the park on a consistent basis. But like many iconic knocks that have often gone down in vain, this too did not have a fairy-tale ending. The margin of defeat, no more than a solitary run, added salt to the wound. However, Rahul emerged as a hero and now looks way beyond a person who is fighting for his spot in the team. He now has set the cat amongst pigeons that his all-round performances should be given a serious look now. The choice should rather be to find a suitable opening partner for Rahul rather than him being a replacement for someone else.

India is set to play 13 more Test matches this season, against stronger teams like New Zealand, England and Australia, all at home. This could be that chance someone like Rahul would have eagerly waited for. He is well versed with domestic conditions, his fitness, commitment and technique are not in question. He even has the backing of his IPL teammate Chris Gayle, who holds him in high regard.The stars are currently favouring Rahul, but it doesn’t take much time for things to take a downward turn. Cheteshwar Pujara was deemed as a perfect replacement for Rahul Dravid, he doesn’t seem that irreplaceable now. Rohit Sharma’s selection is always around the corner, and even if not in Test Cricket, Shikhar Dhawan has proved his mettle in other formats of the game. Rahul faces a stiff competition from his peers and the opposition would be coming in with a plan to dismiss him early. The ball, in all its literal sense, is in Rahul’s court and it is to be seen whether he hits it out of the ground or gets holed out in deep.

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