Each time KL Rahul gets ready in his stance to face a delivery, he makes it a point to take a couple of glances at the good length area. It’s a ritual most batters follow to help their eyes and brain memorise that all-important patch on the pitch. Oftentimes, though, players do this simply out of habit. When they’re out of form, you can tell they aren’t really focusing on that spot.

However, Rahul’s innings at Trent Bridge on Friday was proof that he was completely dialled in. He kept his head down, made that good length area the centre of his attention, and delivered a masterclass on how to bat in seamer-friendly conditions.

It, perhaps, wouldn’t be unfair to say that of all the jobs that visiting players are required to do in England, opening the batting is the toughest. The conditions are invariably conducive for swing bowling, the pitches have good bounce and carry, and the new red ball tends to do something no matter its seam position. As a batter in England, you’re never really settled. And if you’re tasked with facing the new ball, the challenge is that much more difficult.

That is why Rahul’s knock was worth its weight in gold for India. His 84 runs off 214 balls held the innings together and helped his team gain a crucial first innings lead.

Ahead of this series, the 29-year-old wasn’t the first-choice opener for India. In fact, he wasn’t even the second choice partner for Rohit Sharma at the top of the order. It took injuries to Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal for a spot to open up for him.

But once he got his opportunity, Rahul ensured he showcased his immense class as a batsman.

What stood out in his innings was how he left and defended the ball. Batters in England tend to make the mistake of poking at deliveries. They get sucked in by the line and then struggle to check their shots. Rahul was guilty of this too on a couple of occasions and was fortunate to see two of his edges go down in the slip cordon. But for the most part, his defence was impeccable.

At the end of day two, after he triggered a collapse in India’s middle order by dismissing Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli off successive deliveries, James Anderson spoke with Michael Atherton on Sky TV about his release and grip on the ball. The 39-year-old, now third-highest Test wicket-taker in history, said he tried something different for the balls that got India’s No 3 and 4.

Conventionally, fast bowlers keep the shiny side of the ball on the right and angle it in when they want to get swing away from right-handers. This, however, leads to batters leaving the ball after picking it early. What Anderson did against Kohli and Pujara was he kept the shiny side on the left and angled the balls in, like he would for a traditional outswinger. This ensured both batsmen were drawn into playing shots. But the clincher was that on both occasions the release was with a scrambled seam, known as a split-finger release. And Anderson admitted when he does that, even he doesn’t know which way the ball will nip after pitching.

So both Pujara and Kohli must’ve seen the shiny side on the outside and expected the ball to be heading towards the stumps, but because of natural variations, they nipped away and got the edges.

Now, here is where Rahul’s technique stood out. He kept his approach simple and ensured he covered the inward movement off the pitch at all times. He would keep his balance, not overcommit on the front foot, take short strides towards the line of the ball, and simply tuck his bat behind his pad if it nipped away. The key in all of this, of course, was the most basic thing: he didn’t poke at length deliveries.

India were in a serious spot of bother when they lost Rohit, Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, and went from 97/0 to 112/4, but not once did Rahul panic through it all. He was batting in a Test match after August 2019 and was determined to make it count.

“In the last two years, I have learnt to be ready to do anything. I have been asked to play different roles a lot of times and I quite enjoy doing it. So this was another opportunity for me to go out there and challenge myself,” said Rahul after the third day’s play.

“In the Tests I’ve played so far, I’ve opened the batting all my life (he’s batted in India’s middle-order six times), so it wasn’t new for me. I have opened for India in the past. So when the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to grab it and make the most of it. Happy that today I could go out there, show a lot of discipline, and get my team a good start and put us in a good position.”

India’s openers haven’t had a remarkable record in away Tests for several years now. In fact, it is Rahul who was the last Indian opener to score a century away from home – a 149 at The Oval in 2018. When one looks at India’s opening partnerships in England, the picture becomes ever more grim. India didn’t have a single century stand at the top of the order in the last three tours.

Rahul’s knock on Friday, though, was promising for the Indian team. They have an opener who’s hungry for runs and at the top of his game. He hit a century in the tour match, has gotten off to a good start in the Test series, and his team will hope he does more of the same – simply focus on the next ball.