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The two sides of KL Rahul

Last updated on 22 Nov 2023 | 06:27 PM
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The two sides of KL Rahul

The Karnataka batter possesses all strokes in the book but often locks himself in the cage of his own mindset

October 8, 2023: India’s first league game of the World Cup. Chasing 200, they are 2/3 before spectators at the MA Chidambaram Stadium could settle for the second innings. KL Rahul walks out at number five. On a tricky pitch, he stabilizes the ship. In a 165-run stand with Virat Kohli, he is the more fluent batter, eventually scoring an unbeaten 97 in India’s six-wicket win. 

November 12, 2023: India’s last league game of the World Cup. They are batting first against the only non-Test-playing nation of the tournament - the Netherlands. Rahul walks out to bat in the 29th over. The scoreboard, this time, reads 200/3. Rahul creams his way to the fastest ODI World Cup hundred for India - off 62 balls - before being out on the penultimate ball of the innings. 

November 19, 2023: He walked in to bat at 81/3 in 10.2 overs. India had just lost back to back wickets. For the time Rahul is in the middle, India scored only 122 runs off 187 balls - a run rate of only 3.9. He himself scored 66 off 107 deliveries. 

Between the first and the last league games of India, between walking in to bat at 2/3 and 200/3, KL Rahul showcased his full range as a number five batter in ODI cricket - someone who can weather the storm on a tough day and can also maximize a good platform set by the top-order. 

There are only a few players built to fulfill the complex roles of white-ball cricket. Batting at number four/five is one of them. It demands constant change in approach and adaptation. And Rahul is innately built into it. The high points in Rahul’s career are a testament to it. 

Awaiting his comeback into the ODI side after his recovery from a leg injury, Rahul was told five minutes before the Asia Cup 2023’s Super Four clash against Pakistan that he is playing. The 31-year-old responded with a hundred. His unbeaten 111 was so effortless it didn’t seem it was his first cricket match in five months. In IPL 2016, before his white-ball international debut, Rahul scored heavily in the middle-order (number four) after playing a major part of the first half as an opener. 

However, in the final, a week after India’s last league game, we saw the frustrating side of Rahul. 

The innings was not as bad as one may assess with his strike rate. The Men in Blue were in danger of being bowled out too soon. It was not a good knock either as Rahul managed only one boundary in his innings. 

Often, the 31-year-old has locked himself in the cage of his own mindset, going at a timid strike rate for far too long in an innings. The same has hindered his progress as a T20 opener despite holding all the strokes up his sleeves. The pressure has got to him when the stakes are high. 


Rahul’s second life as a number five batter in Indian colours began when concussion ruled out Rishabh Pant from the second ODI against Australia in January 2020. Rahul, who had batted at three in the first fixture, was moved to number five, and the Karnataka batter scored 80 off 52 balls. He has since been preferred in the middle-order with the additional responsibility of being the first-choice wicketkeeper. 

Since then, Rahul’s name has been set in stone in that role. He has averaged 59.6 at number five at a strike rate of 95.5. It includes some rescue acts, an unbeaten 75 against Australia at Wankhede earlier this year, an overseas hundred like 112 in Mount Maunganui in 2020, and a quickfire 62 against England in Pune in 2021.

The time span for which Rahul has nailed this role makes you wonder where he features among India’s best number-four and number-five batters. 

Rahul is one of the only two Indian batters to average above 50 while batting at four and five in ODIs since the 2011 World Cup (minimum 200 runs). He averages 58 on this criteria, the highest, followed by Kohli at 52.4. A strike rate of 93.4 further approves his brilliance. 

However, adjusting for the eras is important, given the changing dynamics of ODI cricket that directly impact the middle overs. The modern-day middle-order batters have the leeway of a fielder less in overs 11 to 40 and a harder ball from either end - making it easier for run-scoring.

KL Rahul has the highest average difference - 23 runs/dismissal ahead of his peers. He also has the third-best strike rate difference here (10.3) after Shreyas Iyer (18.8) and Suresh Raina (15.7) and is closely followed by Yuvraj Singh (10.3).

In comparison with modern-day batters around the globe, Rahul competes with the likes of Heinrich Klaasen, Tom Latham, Jos Buttler, Daryl Mitchell, Sikandar Raza, his teammate Shreyas Iyer, and a few more. 

Iyer and Rahul have the most runs at number four and five post the 2019 World Cup final. But for a better assessment of their middle-order credentials, we will have to look at the best batters against spin bowling post the tenth over. And then, like Rahul did against the Netherlands, a middle-order batter should be able to explode in the final 10 overs. These two criteria also cover their game against both spin and pace.

Considering the Test-playing nations, only 16 batters have scored 400 runs against spin in overs 11 to 50 and 100 runs in overs 41 to 50 while batting at four and five. 

Klaasen has the highest strike rate by a distance. His average against spin is on the lower side, largely because of his attacking instincts against tweakers. Latham, Mitchell, Rizwan, Buttler and Markram all form a cluster in the middle. 

Only Shreyas Iyer and Sikandar Raza have a higher average against spin than Rahul while possessing a comparable strike rate. However, both of them have lean numbers against short and back-of-a-length deliveries. These are prominent lengths for the pacers in overs 11 to 40. Facing these lengths versus pacers, Raza averages 18.7, Iyer 31.7, and Rahul 65.5. 

These stats represent Rahul’s wide range of strokes. He can cut a spinner in line with the stumps, pull the pacers, and hit both over covers, a skill not many batters possess across generations. 

Every match has brought him in a different situation. Batting with Kohli, he has to keep the scoreboard ticking since his partner has an anchor role. Batting with Iyer, he can take his time without compromising the scoring rate in the innings.


The problem emerges with Rahul’s own mindset. At no point in his innings in the final, his dot ball percentage went below 40%. Had he managed to only rotate the strike rate better, which would have been completely acceptable given the format and the circumstances, things could have been vastly different. The inopportune fall of wickets at the other end didn’t help either. 

Rahul planned to go hard in the final few overs but was undone by probably the best wicket-taking delivery of the match. Probably, he may have covered up for his lacklustre strike rate if not for that brute of an outswinger from Mitchell Starc. There would not be any question marks on Rahul, the ODI batter then. 

The Karnataka batter has ended this World Cup as the highest run-scorer at number five - 452 runs. He also has the second-best average in that spot (77.2, after Azmatullah Omarzai’s 82.8) and the fifth-highest strike rate (98.7). 

But the legacy that he could have created with a more impactful knock in the final, irrespective of the outcome, is as big a missed opportunity as India missing out on their third World Cup title. 

The jury is harsh on Rahul, it is important not to judge his credentials in this complex role only by that knock in the final. While he has a long way to go to gain the all-time OG middle-order batter’s status, he is still one of the best to do the role in Indian colors.

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