KL Rahul is the quintessential modern-day cricketer – chiseled body, designer tattoos, fashionable beard. He can talk with clarity and eloquence on most things cricket. And, he can bat.
Boy, can he bat! At his best, he is a sight for the gods, tall and classical and elegant and wristy, a majestic presence at the batting crease. His stroke-making is a thing of delight, rivalling Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in both incandescence and impact.
If evidence was needed of the effect he can have on connoisseur and layman alike, it was provided in the last week, in the Twenty20 International series against Australia. Coming off a disappointing year in international cricket, Rahul turned on the magic with flowing essays of 50 and 47 in Visakhapatnam and Bangalore respectively. Both came in losing causes, but their sheer brilliance was astonishing. On a sluggish surface in the first T20I, he batted as if on a shirtfront, hitting through the line and on the up with impunity. His confidence bolstered by that effort, he elevated his game to a different plane in the next outing at his home ground, the M Chinnaswamy Stadium.
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In two overs, from Jhye Richardson and Pat Cummins, he uncorked four towering sixes – a cover-drive, a pull, a hook and an imperious flick-drive, each of which cleared the boundary by a fair distance. The runs, and the sure-footedness with which they were made, offered no indication of a mind in turmoil or a game in disarray. With the ICC World Cup imminent and a couple of places possibly still up for grabs, Rahul’s timing, in every sense of the word, has been little short of exemplary.
Rahul-watchers, however, will be still holding their breath, wondering if in a fortnight’s time when the One-Day Internationals against the Aussies end, they would be assailed by a sense of déjà vu. After all, his has been a story of a promise less realised.
In August 2016, within 20 months of his India debut, he had raised international centuries in all three formats, the quickest and the youngest to do so globally. He was but 24, the world at his feet, the sky the limit.
From the highs of a hundred each in his second Test, maiden ODI and fourth T20I, Rahul’s career hasn’t kicked on along expected lines. A roller-coaster ride has meant that at 26, he has seen many ups and downs.
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At various times lately, Rahul has appeared weighed down by the trials and tribulations that have been his constant companions for a while now. In a fledgling career – he has only played 74 internationals in a little over four years – he has undergone one major shoulder surgery, picked up several other injuries less serious in magnitude, and fallen foul of the establishment for his complicity in the talk show Koffee With Karan.
Rahul would have had to be non-human to not be affected by these developments which, coupled with the occasional technical flaw that inevitably creeps into every cricketer’s game from time to time, combined to pull his efficacy down. In the eyes of the team management, the Karnataka right-hander’s stock had barely diminished despite diminishing returns. But Rahul himself must have felt the pinch. He started 2018 as a first-choice member of the Test eleven; by the end of a frustrating year, he had been supplanted by exciting fellow-openers Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal.
In Australia last winter, for example, Rahul looked as if he was carrying the weight of the entire world on his reinforced but still frail shoulders. He had just two scores in excess of 50 – 54 against Afghanistan in Bangalore, and 149 against England at The Oval – in 18 preceding Test innings, of which seven had yielded single-digit scores. He tried to hit his way out of trouble in the second innings of the Adelaide Test. With the match in the balance, the same man who had four years previously hobbled along to 188 with a torn hamstring in the Ranji Trophy final had no compunction in driving Cummins over covers for six. The subliminal ease with which the ball cascaded off the bat with minimal effect took everyone’s breath away, but that 44 was to be a false dawn, corroborated by further scores of 2, 0 and 9.
Then came the body blow in the form of a suspension for his appearance in the chat show that triggered a wave of anger, disgust and repugnance. Upon the provisional lifting of the suspension, while Hardik Pandya was recalled to the Indian ODI side, Rahul was picked to play for India A against England Lions, in three 50-over games and two four-day unofficial ‘Tests’.
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Knocks of 13, 42 and 0 in the 50-over matches in Thiruvananthapuram did little to dispel the pall of gloom, but as the action moved to the more salubrious climes of Wayanad and the less frenetic world of duration cricket, it heralded the return to grace of KL Rahul. A flowing 89 there was backed up by 81 in the next outing in Mysore; Rahul was accommodated in the playing eleven for both T20Is, and responded with eye-catching cameos.
It was no surprise to hear Rahul hail the role of his more illustrious namesake, Rahul Dravid, in his rejuvenation. Under The Wall’s tutelage, the next wave of Indian world-beaters have already made their mark at the highest level. Dravid isn’t just the India A and India Under-19 coach, he is a life-coach as well, a reservoir of wisdom and knowledge and experience and erudition waiting to be tapped into.
“I spent a lot of time with Rahul Dravid, working on my game and chatting about cricket. He helped me a lot in the games I played for India 'A',” Rahul said in Bangalore the other night, after his wonderful 47 even if in a losing cause. “I got some time off from international cricket. I could come back and reflect on what wasn't going right for me. Fortunately, I got to play some India A games where the pressure is a little less.”
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The events of the last month and a half had, Rahul acknowledged, changed him as a person. “It has humbled me a little bit,” he manned up, without mock contrition or affected cockiness. “I obviously respect the opportunity I have got to play for the country. It is the dream of every kid and I am no different. (It has taught me) to value where I am and keep making the opportunities count, put my head down and keep working on my cricket. I have been four-five years with Team India, learnt a lot about the game, where I stand as a person and as a cricketer.”
Further opportunities to show the world how far he has come will eventuate over the next fortnight, in the five ODIs against Australia. After a roaring start to his 50-over international career, Rahul has topped 17 just once in his last nine innings. With the audition for the World Cup in its climactic stages, he doesn’t have the luxury anymore of fluffing his lines. If he does go to the United Kingdom in the summer, it will most likely only be as the third opener. But it will also mean that he has sung the redemption song. And trigger the optimism that, at 26, the worst is behind him.
Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond'.
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