Last year, before the pandemic caught up with the entire world, there was a running joke or even reality as some call it that KL Rahul could do anything and everything. But an elusive place in the longest format was something that evaded him, since the 2019 tour to the Caribbean.
In 2020, when India were in New Zealand, the running joke around world cricket was that KL Rahul was the ‘ultimate yes’ man in Indian cricket, for he could bat, keep wickets and most definitely skipper any side. Back then, he made the fullest use of the opportunity that he got, in the shortest format and later against Australia in the same year, made the best interest for himself in the ODI format, on the back of Rishabh Pant’s concussion.
“Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared,” Idowu Koyenikan notes in his book, Wealth for All: Living a Life of Success at the Edge of Your Ability. In a country filled with superstars every other street, it is merely impossible to not stay on your feet, be unprepared. That’s not an option and so is it not an option for the cricketers to settle for a place on the bench.
It was in 2019 when Rahul, after having scores of 2, 0, 9, 44, 38, 13 and 6, was dropped from the setup. While India immediately moved on to the duo of Mayank Agarwal and Rohit Sharma at the top of the order, Rahul’s place in the longest format was still on the thinnest of margins.
A man, who had scored fifties in seven consecutive innings, torched several bowling attacks and showed classical touches of Mozart-esque art but yet in the scheme of things - was reduced to the artwork in the thrift shop that had very few buyers. Being a regular member of the white-ball squad, the hopes of a red-ball return was on the basis of his form in the shorter formats.
His white-ball form was equally terrible, wherein he was dropped from the T20I setup against England. While the ODI display certainly kept him at a fighting distance before the World T20, none would have expected the right-hander to open the proceedings against England, in Nottingham. That’s how fate works, you don’t go seeking it, it comes out of the blue, as Rahul’s selection came ahead of the first Test in Nottingham.
As it has happened multiple times in the past, opportunities only come to those who are prepared. So why did the opportunity knock on the Rahul door? A man who had an aggregate of 112 runs in his last seven innings for India in the whites, there shouldn’t have been an opportunity really. How did it all happen?
Just days before the World Test Championship final, even in the presence of Gill and Rohit, Rahul suggested that he shouldn’t be easily overlooked, his form in the warm-up was such, his shots were exquisite. Due to the lack of coverage and at the expense of the other stars in the lineup, the knock was reduced to the one footage - Rahul vs Kohli.
"I'm happy, time off from Test cricket (has helped). Like they say, failure makes you strong, makes you more focused and determined about the game. It's no different for me. I'm looking forward to the opportunities, trying to stay a lot calmer and more disciplined,” Rahul had said before the warm-up game.
So when Gill was injured and there were suggestions that India could instead opt for a reunion between Rohit and Mayank, the right-handed Rahul wasn’t having one bit of it. Even though he batted in the middle-order, even though his place came at the cost of Mayank’s concussion, which completed an entire circle for him, he had to earn a place.
His last Test hundred, a scintillating 149 came in England, a country that now has presented him with an unreal opportunity to grab as his own. Rahul nearly pulled off the impossible combined with Rishabh Pant, at The Oval in September 2018. That came at the top of the order, India had seemingly moved on from him. Until on the eve of the first Test, it was not even destined that he was going to play, given that Ajinkya Rahane was recovering well from his injury.
Walking in at No.5, Rahane’s spot, Rahul had shown flashes of brilliance combined with a temperament that was needed to succeed in the country. Even though he faced a lot of spin, he was unperturbed, wasn’t overly ambitious and more importantly, wasn’t attempting the stairway to heaven, instead, he built it upon the principles of Test cricket - calm, tranquil yet a technique needed to succeed at the highest level.
Mayank’s sudden absence prompted the selectors to take the risk - one that was with substance this time around - to get Rahul back at the top of the batting order. Going against Craig Milnes, Lyndon James, Liam Patterson-White, Will Rhodes isn’t quite comparable to going against James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ollie Robinson and Sam Curran.
As an opportunist, Rahul grabbed the opportunity with both hands, in a country that has been dooming for the Indian batsmen. Luck had arrived in several parts - before the Test and multiple times during the Test - when the English slip fielders dropped him.
But in between the several doses of luck, the 29-year-old showed all the signs of performing well in England - know-how on leaving the ball, his outside stump and more importantly, to counter the ball swinging back in, where he averages just nine runs. In comparison to Rohit’s approach, the right-hander had left 31% of the deliveries in the opening session during English twilight.
He later threaded on thin water, with 34 false shots, which according to Cricviz would have dismissed him thrice. But as it turned out, on days two and three, the right-hander had marginalized the false shot from 25% to 15%. Slowly yet steadily, he was building upon his CV that was left half-empty in the country. Yet at the same time, inch by inch, he was becoming an instrumental part of the Indian batting order, at the top.
Rohit had gone, Cheteshwar Pujara was done, Kohli was also done. Battling with the middle-order, Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, KL Rahul made the fullest use of his opportunities and when he walked back, he was definitely left disappointed, with his dismissal but yet could walk back with his head held high, such was his knock in Nottingham.
While this doesn’t paint his future safe, it only suggests that on or off the pitch, the 29-year-old continues to make the fullest use of the opportunities, and as an opportunist, it was his hard work that worked harder than the luck.