It is not easy to get noticed when you are batting alongside Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. On the world stage, there are three other batsmen in the ‘Fab 4’ list accompanying the Indian captain - Kane Williamson, Steve Smith and Joe Root. Babar Azam is emerging as Pakistan’s best batsman. Yet, somehow, KL Rahul, who turned 28 today, has stood apart to get acknowledged for his sumptuous strokeplay.
You know there is something about this Karnataka lad when a batting wizard like Brian Lara, possessor of possibly the widest range of strokes, calls him his favorite player in the world. Talking to ESPNCricinfo, Lara even went to the extent of saying, “He has a technique that I wish I had.”
However, it is only the last couple of years when Rahul has risen through the ranks to cement his place in the Indian side. Even in these two years, he has gone through ebbs and flows trying to adjust to the demands of three different formats of professional cricket.
He lost his place in the Test side. Once seen as a potential long-term Test opener for India, Rahul’s Test returns dropped atrociously as India’s overseas cycle began in 2018. Touring South Africa, England, Australia and then West Indies, the opener averaged only 22.3 in 2018 and 22 in 2019. His 6 off 63 balls in the Kingston Test in 2019 was agonizingly painful to watch.
Batsmen are primarily judged by their exploits in Test cricket and it was no surprise that Rahul was discarded by fans. What was surprising though was the fact that Rahul was oozing class on the IPL circuit.
Playing for Punjab in 2018, Rahul hammered 659 runs at an average of 54.9 and a strike-rate reading 158.4. He then began India’s tour of England with a blistering hundred in the first T20I in Manchester. However, there was nothing from him afterwards. Next season again, Rahul was Punjab’s highest run-scorer (593 runs, average 53.9, strike-rate 135.4) but could not buy a run for himself in the subsequent Test series in the West Indies.
In his first innings of the 2018 season when Rahul scored the fastest IPL fifty (14 balls), Ian Bishop in the commentary box said, “He has not broken sweat yet.” It was baffling to see a batsman turning bowling attacks to dust with elegant destructive strokeplay but struggle to such an extent in the longer format, despite being perceived as a Test prospect once.
Rahul’s form in T20 cricket has made up for a startling study. Ever since his T20I debut in 2016, the lowest he has averaged in a calendar year is 36 in 2018, a very healthy number and the strike-rate has always been in the 140s to say the least.
In IPL, ever since he has got a permanent run at the opening slot for Punjab, he has been a revelation. Playing all his 28 games for Punjab as an opener till now, Rahul averages 54.4 at a strike-rate of 146.6. Only Jos Buttler has turned out to be more menacing than him while David Warner comes close, Rahul is still the most prolific Indian opener in IPL since 2018.
It is the opening slot that has done the trick for him. Playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore earlier, he wasn’t able to showcase his full potential. “At RCB, I was under the shadow of Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. Here I am the number one and that has helped me”, Rahul told India Today before the season opener in 2019.
It says a lot about him as a cricketer. He wants to take the situation head-on instead of waiting for things to happen. This was not possible by batting majorly in the middle-order coming after Kohli and de Villiers.
In between his Test blip, Rahul’s stunning IPL numbers has kept him in contention for a spot in India’s T20 side. To begin the post-2019 IPL season, he was a back-up option for the entrenched duo of Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan. However, scores of 62 and 91 against West Indies in December 2019, 45 and 54 against Sri Lanka in January 2020 and then a man-of-the-series award winning performance in India’ 5-0 victory in New Zealand has made it tough for Dhawan to be back in the T20 XI straightaway post his injury. Rahul’s ability to up the ante from the word go also solves India’s problems of staying put with the run-rate from the beginning.
With his additional skill of wicketkeeping and Rishabh Pant’s failure to attain consistency, Rahul is, in fact, now a possible replacement for MS Dhoni in India’s T20I squad. His presence covers the role of an opener, a wicketkeeper and as it was seen in the T20Is in New Zealand when he was the stand-in captain for the stand-in captain, potentially a future leader as well. At the moment, KL Rahul kills many birds with one stone.
Going by recent events, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that he has accomplished the same in ODIs as well. While he had scored two fifties and a hundred in the 2019 World Cup and pummeled a sublime 102 versus West Indies in December 2019, which he celebrated by covering his ears miming shutting off the criticism coming his way, Rahul grabbed the opportunity in the middle-order with a resounding 80 off 52 balls earlier this year. He was replacing the concussed Pant and seemed equally apt behind the wickets as he was in front of them in the preceding innings of the match. Voila, he was announced as India’s new wicketkeeper-batsman by skipper, Kohli and solved India’s middle-order in conjunction with the find for a keeper.
Rahul’s biggest strength is his vast array of shots. Batting with a SG bat carrying a sticker reminiscent of the old classical times when most of the run-scoring was done in the ‘V’, Rahul’s strokeplay is no different and frequently looks like an extension of a defensive push.
His pull shots and wrist work might not be talked in the same breath as that of Rohit and Kohli respectively yet but it is just a matter of time. He drives, cuts, sweeps - mixing all of them with elegance and authority. To top it all, no other batsmen hits sixes over extra-cover as often as him. 26 percent of his boundaries in T20 cricket have come in an arc covering the cover and extra-cover region. The closest any top-order batsman comes to him is Kohli (23) and Warner (21). In addition, Rahul has also added the ramp shots and the upper cut to his repertoire.
As said before, it has been a topsy-turvy last couple of years for the Karnataka batsman, observing fluctuating fortunes in different formats of the game.
He has finally affirmed his place in Indian cricket’s white-ball setup. But his Test spot has gone to Rohit, Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw. While a return to Test cricket as an opener seems a far-fetched prospect, Rahul can follow the same path that paved his return to the ODIs - in the middle-order. Afterall, it is tough to ignore such brilliance in two out of the three formats of the game and it can be safe to say that after years of ups and downs, we should settle down to see Rahul at his best once cricket resumes.