12th August 2021: The third ball of the 78th over. As KL Rahul smashed a wide delivery from Mark Wood to notch up a scintillating hundred and carve his name on the Honour Board at Lord's, the ardent fans of Indian cricket erupted in joy.
On the other hand, Rahul calmly looked up to the sky, kissed his helmet, and acknowledged the crowd and his teammates before running to hug his skipper, Virat Kohli. Interestingly, after a dismal performance in his debut Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2014, it was Virat Kohli batting at the other end when he reached his maiden hundred at Sydney in the subsequent game. Seven years later, as he revived his Test career, it was only prudent that it was his captain guiding him through the nervous 90s in the final hour of the play on Day One.
Overcast conditions greeted both sides, India and England, for the second Test in the five-match series. After a damp squib at Trent Bridge, it was time for Lord's to host two of the most dominant sides in world cricket. After being asked to bat first in conditions conducive for swing bowling, Rahul and Rohit Sharma showcased sheer grit and determination to curb their natural instincts and grind through the challenging phase. However, the story didn't begin like that.
When the Indian team embarked on their journey to England for the summit clash of the World Test Championship and the much-anticipated series against England, KL Rahul was never in contention to feature in the playing XI. "Honestly, there was no discussion because KL wasn't supposed to play the first game; Mayank was. But, unfortunately, he was hit on the head and was out due to a concussion, and then KL stepped in," Rohit Sharma said in a press conference post the first day's play at Lord’s.
While the duo have never joined forces to open the innings in red-ball cricket, they know each other's game well after their exploits in the limited-overs format.
"It was probably the best I have seen KL bat. I thought he was very much in control from ball one till we finished the day. He was very clear with his plans, and when you do that and trust your plans, they definitely work. Today was his day, and he really made it count", he added.
Tracing the journey of KL Rahul
The past couple of years have possessed plenty of challenges for Rahul in the longest format for the game. While he burst onto the scene, piling up thousands of runs on the domestic circuit, his performance and the mode of dismissal at the highest level created doubts in the mind of cricketing pundits about his technique to survive the grueling test of international cricket.
In the past 14 innings post his last hundred at the Oval in 2018, Rahul had failed to notch up a substantial score to cement his place in the side. During that phase of three years, with a plethora of self-doubt, he was unable to understand where his off-stump was and often poked at deliveries way outside his radar or drive on the up.
While he was at the peak of his career in the white-ball format with consistent performances in the Indian Premier League and for India at the international level, he failed to replicate the same in the Test arena. With the emergence of Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, and Shubman Gill in the reckoning, Rahul lost in place in the playing XI for a brief period.
Decoding the tweaks in KL Rahul's technique
Lack of form combined with an unfortunate injury during India's tour Down Under ensured his Test career was hanging by the sword after the heroics of the young contingent in the southern hemisphere.
Despite the stutter, he went back to the drawing board to iron out his flaws and vowed to make a roaring return to the side. Hours of gruelling sessions in his backyard, Rahul primarily focussed on decluttering his mind with options and sticking to the absolute basics of the game, something he mastered while growing up through the hard yards of domestic cricket.
One of the changes he has incorporated in this new 2.0 version is playing the ball close to the body and with soft hands. This has enabled him to be in absolute control of the ball in the conditions favourable for swing bowling, and playing with soft hands has ensured the edges do not carry to the slip cordon. Another highlight of his innings was his ability to leave the ball and blunt the bowling unit with his assured technique and footwork. En route to his hundred at the Mecca of Cricket, he was in complete control of his off-stump and left plenty of deliveries around the fifth stump line.
While the first Test ebbed and flowed, the Indian team looked in absolute control on the first day at Lords as Rahul held the innings together with a sublime hundred. With the overcast conditions, he curbed his instincts and took plenty of time to ensure the visiting side have a solid foundation in the first innings.
Glimpses of the right-handed batsman leaving deliveries outside his radar, and defending balls with surety showcased his confidence in the rejigged technique. While for most of the first session, the world of cricket was in awe of his patience and calmness to weather the storm; the second session was about enjoying his exhilarating stroke-play.
Displaying an array of strokes all around the park, Rahul enthralled the fans with a masterclass and sealed his spot as an opener in this series. He is leading India's charge in the series through his drives and back-foot punches and is their highest run-scorer in the tournament.
The road ahead
With the middle order struggling for runs, the onus will be on the opening combination to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility of the side. However, if India aims to go a step ahead in their World Test Championship campaign, they will need consistent performances from their experienced middle-order. While Rahul has been phenomenal in the two games, he will need support from the other end in the English conditions where the result of the match can sway if you have one horrid session.
In a land that witnessed his batting prowess, Rahul has redeemed himself after missing out in the squad for the summit clash of the World Test Championship. The journey from not being in contention to feature in the series to become the leading run-scorer for the Indian team has been a whirlwind series for the flamboyant right-hander.