Kings XI Punjab batting first. KL Rahul facing over 40 balls. Kings XI Punjab ending up with a barely-par score on a glorious batting wicket despite one batsman striking at an absurd rate. Opposition chasing down the target convincingly.
You wouldn’t be wrong to assume that what’s being narrated here is one of Punjab’s matches from the first half of their season. Versus both the Royals and the Super Kings earlier in the season, Punjab were guilty of not maximizing their totals despite having ample wickets in hand. In the said two games, where Punjab had two batsmen striking at over 165, Rahul went at under 130. On the back of one those games came the infamous “Strike rate is overrated” comment from the KXIP skipper but, to his credit, Rahul showed more intent, urgency and better reading in the games that followed, granted the side chased in all but one of them.
But on Friday in Abu Dhabi, the Punjab skipper burnt all the good work he’d done in the five games that preceded the fixture to the ground. On a wicket where six of the seven batsmen who batted a minimum of 10 balls struck at over 150, Rahul scored his 46 runs from 41 balls a rate of 112.20.
Anchoring the Gayle storm that was bulldozing Rajasthan from the other end, Rahul, despite Punjab having 9 wickets in hand, glided at third gear for the entirety of his innings, worse yet, left just 32 balls for the hitters that followed him and saw his side crawl to 185. The end result was unsurprising. Rajasthan, who’d chased down 196 with 10 balls to spare in their previous outing, dusted the 186 they needed with 15 balls to spare.
While there will be questions raised over the potency and impotency of the Punjab bowling attack - that had fared exceptionally in six previous matches - this defeat should and must ultimately come down to what Rahul did and did not do with the willow in his hand.
For Rahul can have no excuses for his approach on Friday. The need was laid out clearly in front of the Punjab skipper: in a ground that’d seen two big targets chased down with ease across five days prior to Friday, what was needed from the side batting first was urgency, fearlessness and the hunger to not be satisfied with a par score. Yet from the bat of Rahul, who faced 34% of Punjab’s deliveries in the innings, there was none. In action was his uninspiring, pedestrian and insipid avatar which, like a freeloader in a 9-5 shift, was keen to kill time than get actual work done. Unsurprisingly, and not for the first time this season, the dreary approach came back to bite the side.
There are two ways to look at Rahul’s approach on Friday. From the prism of the classic T20 approach, Rahul’s was a good knock - he bided his time, weathered the storm, gave assurity to his partner and by batting 14 overs, quashed any chances of a collapse, giving the rest of the batsmen the full license to throw the kitchen sink at everything in the final five. Pragmatically, however, he failed and restricted the side’s potential. By excruciatingly playing within himself for the entirety of his innings, and by concurrently denying the - more explosive - batsmen beneath him more time, Rahul ensured that Punjab left at least 25-30 runs behind.
Rahul’s approach stems from fear and responsibility. Being the skipper and best batsman means that both attributes go hand-in-hand: he wants to be ‘responsible’ for scoring bulk of the runs and, at the same time, he has the intrinsic fear of throwing his wicket away. Thus, conservatism. But while this could realistically have served as a valid excuse in the first half of the season, where Punjab had a thin, inexperienced and untrustable middle-order, Rahul continuing to do the same post the introduction of Chris Gayle belies logic, particularly after he himself he implicitly stated post the Mumbai encounter that the Universe Boss’ arrival had given him freedom.
Rahul’s innings progression from Friday gives a fair reflection of how he at no point in the innings made an attempt to make a move on. No 10-ball phase yielded more than 16 runs and this despite Punjab placed at 91/1 at one stage, with Rahul himself on 35 (30) and Gayle on 51 (35). The right-hander would go on to 11 more runs off his next 11 balls before abruptly holing out to the fielder in the deep at the worst time imaginable.
It is time that Rahul realizes that anchoring is overrated, particularly whilst batting first. At least thrice this season, his fifties have hindered the side more than they’ve helped and across the competition, there have been ample examples that have showcased why one batsman holding fort at 120 SR is an outdated, inefficient and non-dynamic approach that needs to be done away with.
Almost all of Shubman Gill’s knocks batting first stymied KKR and Kohli’s knock versus Chennai last Sunday is another classic example of the anchor going wrong. Nitish Rana’s 87 on Thursday, too, which came at an SR of 142, was a team-hurter and there have been knocks aplenty from Manish Pandey this season, batting first, which outrightly denied the Sunrisers the opportunity to maximize the score.
The problem with batsmen overdoing ‘anchoring’ batting first is that it almost always demands an otherworldly cameo to even push the side to a par total. When it comes off - Like AB’s blitz in Sharjah versus KKR and Rahul’s flourish versus RCB in Dubai - it gives the impression that it’s the perfect template as to how a T20 innings has to be constructed but when it doesn’t - like the Rahul knock on Friday - it leaves the side in an extremely precarious position. The anchor, who has a score next to his name, however, more often than not, escapes criticism due to the weight of runs he’s scored and this leads to a toxic cycle where the side try to replicate the approach in search of success. What happened with Rahul and Punjab versus Rajasthan was just that.
Punjab, Rahul and all the other sides can take notes from Mumbai, who have by far been the most efficient batting side in the entire competition. Mumbai have posted more 190+ totals than any other side in the competition and they have managed to do it by encouraging all their batsmen to take a fair bit of risk. From MI, only Quinton de Kock (418 runs) features in the Top 10 list for the Orange Cap this season yet Mumbai have been destructive and successful because five of their top 6 batsmen have boasted an SR of over 140. Batsmen not looking to hog the crease has meant that, despite there being a regular fall of wickets, there has been a healthy flow of quick runs coming from the bat of multiple men, aiding the side in the quest to post large totals.
Rahul and Gayle, on Friday, could also very well have gone the Warner and Saha partnership way or, least, the Smith and Samson way from the Chennai game at the start of the season. Granted the match took place in Sharjah, Smith, the designated anchor, after the fall of an early wicket (like the KXIP vs RR game), in the CSK clash, tried his best to keep pace with his explosive partner, Samson, and eventually finished with an SR of 146. In both the cases - Smith/Samson and Warner/Saha - the flourish towards the end was pretty underwhelming, but it counted for little as two batsmen going at full throttle ensured that the side was placed at an exceedingly comfortable position by the 15 or 16 over mark; it gave leeway for the batsmen below to fail. With one batsman going at a snail’s pace as Rahul did on Friday, there is simply no margin for error for the rest of the batsmen - and it’s unhealthy.
It took Rahul eight games to right the wrongs of his captaincy but, surprisingly and unfortunately, it has taken him longer to do the same with his batting. But with Punjab having let slip a golden opportunity to put a foot in the playoffs, and with them now essentially reliant on other results and Net Run Rate to take them through to the next round, time is running out for the KXIP skipper. Come Sunday versus Chennai, Rahul will have one final opportunity to unleash the beast within himself that he has imprisoned a month too long for everyone’s liking.