KL Rahul gave two subtle odes to an old cricketing adage: Timing is everything. In their last 50-over game before the World Cup proper, India appeared to have finally identified their two-drop batsman, or at least forced to do so, by Rahul’s sublime 108. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri were out on the balcony at the Sophia Gardens stadium and cheered Rahul’s century as he, egged on by fellow-centurion MS Dhoni, soaked in the ovation with a gentle bat raise.
The fervour in the dressing room for a warm-up game was understandable. The absence of a regular No.4 had left the team at sixes and sevens building up to the event, with Vijay Shankar, all of nine ODIs old, handed the proverbial right of first refusal by chief selector MSK Prasad during his World Cup squad announcement.
“To begin with KL [Rahul] will be reserve opener, if need arises the team management will take a call,” Prasad had added post the selection meeting. As it turned out, the need to bring Rahul back to the middle-order was necessitated by a freak injury to Vijay on the eve of the first World Cup warm-up against New Zealand. Rahul failed at The Oval, chopping on Trent Boult for 6, but the exceptional circumstances around that match – a green top at the Oval and overcast conditions – brought him a second throw of the dice, here in Cardiff.
In retrospect, this chance was somewhat deserved given the 27-year-old never got a run of games at one position in ODIs – the kind of backing he has received in Tests through a barren run last year in England. In fact, Rahul has batted at two-drop in only 4 of the 14 ODIs he’s played, averaging a measly 13 in the position with a best score of 17. The idea of using him there was mooted on the tour of Sri Lanka in 2017, but he was yanked to Nos. 3 and 5 over the course of the series and found Akila Dananjaya hard to negotiate on spinning tracks, falling to the spinner all three times.
Rahul went through a white-ball metamorphosis of sorts at IPL 2018, scoring 659 runs (as opener) at a strike-rate of 158.41. That followed a 36-ball 70 in Ireland and a 54-ball 101 against England at Manchester, prompting Sourav Ganguly to lead the “Rahul at four for the World Cup” proclamations. But two scores of 9* and 0 in the ensuing ODIs later, and Rahul was consigned to the bench for the decider. He played a solitary game in the Asia Cup, as an opener against Afghanistan, and post his infamous talk-show episode, got one game against Australia in Mohali, where Kohli stepped down to 4 to accommodate Rahul.
His obvious ball-striking talents notwithstanding, Rahul the ODI batsman, has had to slightly temper his batting to suit the 50-over format, something he used the India A series against England Lions and the IPL 2019 to fine-tune. The 593 runs this year came at a significant 23-point drop down to 135.39 in his strike-rate. In fact, in a tricky chase against Mumbai Indiansin Mohali, Rahul even allowed himself to look ugly, playing a bulk of his innings at less than a run-a-ball before catching up later on to guide the team home.
“I think every batsman who has played at this level knows how to handle pressure and knows how to handle the roles and responsibilities given to him. And, it’s a team game and everybody has been prepared for the last couple of years in a way where anything, any role can be given come a big game,” he said after India’s win in Cardiff on Wednesday (May 29).
“I tried to make the best use of it [my time off with suspension]. I felt like there were a few things with my batting and technique I needed to fix. I worked with my coach back home in Bangalore and the India A games gave me a little time with Rahul Dravid to just speak to him about mental preparation and how to handle pressure and how to handle low confidence and low form. The best way to get back to scoring runs is to find that form in the middle and I got that opportunity. So from there I just carried on and I knew that my batting was fine and I was very hungry to come back and score runs for whatever teams I played,” he added.
It is this kind of flexibility that India most seek at No.4, a player capable of transition cricket to add more heft to an already imposing top-order. Here in Cardiff, Rahul walked in at 83 for 3 posts another failure for the openers and an incomplete resurrection attempt by Kohli. Vijay Shankar’s nervous dismissal made it 102 for 4 after 22 overs. With Bangladesh keen on identifying their fifth and sixth bowling options before the main tournament, he controlled the pace of the innings, settled in and then redirected pressure with his silken strokeplay. Read More