Almost till the 98th ball he faced on the second day in Dharamsala, KL Rahul was looking gorgeous. Yes, there was one dropped chance he offered early on his innings, when an outside edge was shelved by Matt Renshaw, but that comes with the territory of being an opening batsman and facing high-quality fast bowling. You have to ride your luck and make it count.

And till he got his 90, he was. There were beautiful shots, all over the ground. There was calm defence. KL Rahul looked like he could do no wrong.

But things changed almost immediately after he got his half-century, his fifth this series. Edginess crept in. The first ball after he got to the landmark, he pushed outside off and got another edge which fell short. Off the last ball of that over, he went back and cut, only to find a thick inside edge which, thankfully for him, did not rebound towards the stumps.

A matter of time

There were “oohs” and “aahs” around. Immediately the buzz started. The Australians, sensing blood, attacked. The verbals started. Josh Hazlewood squared him up and took his outside edge again. Then Pat Cummins got him to drive uppishly to cover and it did not carry. A fast, pacy bouncer rocketed into his ribs, which he fended away.

You could tell it was a matter of time. Rahul managed to get one more boundary, but Cummins had the last laugh. In the 41st over of India’s innings, Rahul fended away at a bouncer. Cummins told him what he thought of it. The next ball, Cummins gave him some more chin music. Rahul, though, wasn’t going to sway or fend this time and he went for a wild, wild hook. Bad decision. The ball ballooned up and David Warner caught it. Australia had earned that wicket.

It’s becoming a familiar trope now. KL Rahul comes in and looks in pristine form. He’s solid at the start and then starts opening up. He plays his shots and gets past 50. And then something happens to him.

Till he gets to that landmark though, he looks like a million dollars. In Pune, Rahul was the sole batsman who seemed like he could single-handedly take India towards Australia’s total in the first innings. His 97-ball 64 was imperious and yet flung away, in one unbelievable brain fade.

The centuries have dried up

As India floundered again in Bengaluru, KL Rahul held order in a quieter 90, but finally was pushed to desperation as India were bowled for 189. Another 50 followed in the second innings before a wide, loose shot outside off and a Steve Smith ripper sent him back. In Ranchi, Rahul was lazy while getting out of the way of a Pat Cummins bouncer and departed for 67.

The KL Rahul of 2017 is a far cry from the fresh-faced youngster who delighted world with a gritty century in Sydney in 2015. More than two years later, Rahul is a different beast. There is a polish and ruggedness about his batting. No longer is he the nervous youngster in Australia. Bearded and tattooed, he is a confident version of himself. He talks the talk, walks the walk. He can score runs anywhere he wants and he knows it.

And yet, look at the irony. Before this series, people joked that he was either a century man or nothing. He had just one fifty and four centuries. Now the tables have turned. The fifties are coming dime a dozen but the hundreds have dried up.

“There was a time when they said I get past 20, I get a hundred. That was a problem. Now if we get just fifty, that’s a problem,” said KL Rahul, a trifle tongue-in-cheek, after he received his Player of the Match award in Bengaluru.

Unfortunately, it is a problem now.

Rahul needs to kick on

For one thing, the 24-year-old is arguably the most talented player in this Indian batting line up, save for Virat Kohli. And for such a batsman, a fifty is too less. A half-century should be the starting point, not the final destination.

Think about it. In a One-Day International or a Twenty20, quickfire fifties often get the job done. But in Tests, they’re criminal. You do all the hard work. You set the foundation, you get to terms with the pitch, the conditions. And then you throw it away. The complete antithesis of Cheteshwar Pujara.

Sure, KL Rahul is no Pujara temperamentally. So it would be unwise to ask him to become a batsman like Pujara or England’s Alastair Cook, if you may. But that doesn’t mean an aggressive batsman can’t get the big daddy hundreds. And if KL Rahul needs inspiration, he just has to look at a certain Virender Sehwag.

Like Rahul, Sehwag was flamboyant and aggressive, perhaps even more so. He was also an opener. But there was one distinctive quality about the Delhi dasher: when he got going, he was in for the long haul. His numbers embody just that fact: two triple centuries, three double centuries and eight scores above 150.

Rahul’s problems aren’t technical. He is as good a batsman as you’ll ever see. They’re mental. And they can be worked on. But Rahul needs to first recognise this. And then have a good long hard talk with himself. Because even he’ll agree, he’s much too good to get just a fifty and throw his wicket away.