KL Rahul reaps rewards for return to orthodoxy

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In April 2015, in an Indian Premier League encounter against Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium, KL Rahul had plodded his way to a painstaking 25 off 27 before ending his cumbersome stay in the middle with an ungainly swipe off a Mitchell McClenaghan length delivery. Rahul’s knock, in a chase of a below-par 157, had undone all the early advantage the visitors had accrued in the game, resulting in Sunrisers’ 20-run defeat. Walking back to the dressing room after his dismissal, a visibly-affected Rahul was seen shadow-practicing the orthodox cover-drive, a shot he had inadvertently traded for the unsavoury hoick, for that was the purported way for success in the format. “I think I need to play smartly. I have been playing some stupid shots. I have been getting off to starts, which is a positive sign. My feet are moving well and I am looking confident but I have to be a lot smarter in the middle and soak up that pressure. Once I play 20-25 balls in this format, my team is expecting me to deliver and get a big score. I have been lacking on that front,” he had said in a brutal assessment of his existing limited-overs prowess.
To the regular followers of the Indian domestic cricket, Rahul’s inability to cash in on his starts had come as a big surprise. The youngster had, after all, established himself as the batting linchpin of Karnataka’s unprecedented dominance of domestic cricket. Scores of 337 against Uttar Pradesh and 188 against Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy had underscored his appetite for big runs. However, in just nine matches in IPL 2015, he had earned himself a reputation of being a prodigious batting talent but one not quite suited to the constantly evolving limited-overs formats of the game. The demands of a modern-day batsman have significantly changed over the last decade. The rewards for being adaptable across different formats of the game – Tests, One-Day Internationals and Twenty20 Internationals – are understandably more. With the advent of T20, Test matches too, have witnessed a notable increase in scoring rates. There is carrot for positive intent and authoritative strokeplay. The true value of any batsman now is his ability to transition
across formats. The batsmen of now are now judged on the scale set by the Warners, the Kohlis, the Roots and the Devillerss – each of whom has blurred the lines of batsmanship between the formats.
“That’s what the game is these days,” Rahul opines. “We understood (this changing trend) as kids growing up. We started working at being good at each format from a very young age. The transition challenges you as a person, as a cricketer … your skillsets are tested every game. Now, in a T20 game, every over you encounter different challenges.
“But this is what we live for. Each game is a lesson. For me, it’s about going back home and sit and think of what I’ve learnt and try to come back as a stronger player as a stronger person.”
The road to shorter-formats proficiency didn’t come all too easily for the 24-year-old. Soon after that lukewarm IPL season, Rahul was laid low by dengue and missed India’s tour of Bangladesh. A quadricep injury sustained in a start-stop tour of Sri Lanka meant he had to miss the Karnataka Premier League, a T20 tournament that several of the state’s players routinely use to put new shots and deliveries into practice. The nagging injury setbacks, Karnataka’s early exit in each of the three big domestic tournaments provided time for introspection.
“I didn’t have time to prepare for IPL. I was just coming back from an injury,” he says. “Having spent time away from cricket, I got time to think about what I could do to be successful in the shorter format. I realised it was just important to keep things simple, stick to my basics and perform to my strengths, which is to play cricketing shots.”
While there was no dearth of cricketing brains to pick in the Royal Challengers Bangalore dressing room, availability of playing time and batting position were going to be paramount to Rahul’s development. In Virat Kohli, he’d found an able mentor and from whose example, he could imbibe from. Even before his records-shattering IPL, Kohli had reached the summit of T20 batsmanship by simply playing percentage and low-risk cricket. The India Test captain, who’d famously encouraged Rahul to play his shots even during a tense match situation in Melbourne leading to the debutant’s subsequent dismissal, entrusted his protege with dual responsibility of batting in the top-order and donning the wicket-keeper’s role. The instructions to him were simple – keep it simple and positive.
Out emerged a different Rahul from the Wankhede Stadium dressing room. Now sporting a beard and a man bun that otherwise belied his age, Rahul exuded confidence of a man who’d learnt from experience. McClenaghan pinged him on the helmet with a sharp bouncer, reminding him of his travails from a year back. The Rahul of 2015 would have opted for the release hoick over cow corner. Not now. He had matured enough to keep those urges suppressed for most parts. He played and missed at times but retained his batting orthodoxy when the ball was there to be hit.
Eventually, when McClenaghan, went short and wide, Rahul cut him over backward point for six. The bowler followed it up with another sharp bouncer, arrowing at the batsman’s throat only to see Rahul arch back and upper cut it over the slips for another six. With the short balls dealt with, when the bowler compensated with a predictable fullish delivery, Rahul was once again in position to flick it past short-fine. He’d fared only marginally better than his last visit to the Wankhede with an 18-ball 23 but had picked up a valuable lesson. He no longer had to go hard at the ball. He was just as effective allowing the bowler to come hard at him.
“Once I came into the (Royal Challengers) team, I spent a lot of time with Virat (Kohli) and AB (de Villiers) and asked them what I could do to better to improve my cricket. Their ideas and feedback did help. Once I got a couple of starts, I was confident and then I got those (three consecutive) fifties, I knew I could go out and express myself and leave behind all what people were saying behind me (about my limited-overs game),” he says looking back at the start of his turnaround.
Even in a batting unit that featured the dazzling brilliance of Kohli and de Villiers, Rahul held his own. In the team’s final league game of the season at Raipur, a must-win encounter against Delhi Daredevils, Rahul saw off an incisive opening spell against Chris Morris and Zaheer Khan to score a breezy 24-ball 38, eclipsing even Kohli in a match-winning stand of 66. Flaring tempers, a tricky wicket and the enormity of the match did little to deter the youngster. By the time he was dismissed, he’d all but assured the Royal Challengers of a place in the knockouts.
Rahul, the limited-overs batsman, had announced himself.
It is only fitting that a fortnight later, Rahul finds himself at the cusp of his international limited-overs debut. But as MS Dhoni points out, for all its advantages the IPL remains but a domestic tournament. Rahul will need to dig into his reserves yet again when called upon to bat at the top of the order. An early morning start in Zimbabwe work test his technique as much as his resolve. If he can hold on to his virtues from the IPL , there is little doubting his pedigree to succeed.

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