2018, Perth. The second Test between Australia and India was played on a green top, raging wicket at the Optus Stadium. In the first innings, Josh Hazlewood bowled opener KL Rahul with a peach. The batter’s feet didn’t move and the ball crashed into his stumps.
The second innings’ dismissal was more bothersome, though. It was Mitchell Starc this time, the ball coming in from the left-arm over angle. Rahul was in two minds. Should he play it or not? In the end, he decided to leave, but was too late. The ball hit his bat and deflected onto his stumps.
Rahul left Perth a confused Test batter, struggling for not only form, but also clarity of thought.
2022, Perth. It is a different setting now, white-ball cricket, the T20 World Cup. Rahul arrived in Perth a confused T20 batter, struggling again for runs, but also clarity of thought. Only, this time, the confusion in his mind isn’t entirely about leaving or playing. It is whether he should score or not, and if so, at what pace should he score.
Sample his two games against Pakistan and South Africa. At the MCG, it was almost a replica of the Starc dismissal from 2018. He dabbed at Naseem Shah’s delivery, hoping to steer it down for a single, and instead missed the line completely – inside edge and bowled.
Against the Proteas in Perth, he tried to be surer, again trying to open the face of his bat, but this time there was bounce from Lungi Ngidi – thick edge and caught at slip.
Former batting coach Sanjay Bangar said it was like the fielding drills teams do before a match. On both occasions, Rahul was guilty of playing the ball too late. On both occasions, his dismissals reignited debate around his position / rate of scoring. Rahul now is at the centre of Indian cricket fans’ collective attention and for good reason.
Of course, now in Adelaide, head coach Rahul Dravid was bombarded with questions about his form, and indeed his place in the side, ahead of the Bangladesh game.
“It’s been tough. This tournament has been challenging (for top order batters),” Dravid said during an interaction where he backed the opener to the hilt. “He’s a fantastic batsman, with a proven record, and in the warm-up game against Australia, he batted really well (in Brisbane). So, I think he has been batting superbly and we are hoping it clicks over the next three or four games. We know his quality, and ability. He is well suited for these pitches.”
If you were looking for answers, Dravid provided two. Yes, Rahul is going to feature against Bangladesh and possibly further, with the team management hoping for him to come good. And no, Rishabh Pant is not coming in as a makeshift opener, not at the Adelaide Oval at least.
What Dravid’s words also did was shift the focus from, well, Rahul to Rahul. Dravid could only do so much to deflect attention, and put an arm of support around his player, literally and metaphorically. The spotlight then shifted from the Adelaide Oval’s conference hall to the indoor nets, where India’s optional practice session was underway on a rainy, windy and extremely chilly Australian day.
Rahul hadn’t attended the optional session in Perth. Prior to the Netherlands game, there was no practice on match eve, but he did bat a bit two days earlier. The last time he had batted in the nets in real anger for any particular duration was before the Pakistan game, full 11 days ago. And so, there he was again, taking throw-downs and facing the spinners, the best he could manage indoors.
Little bit of help from Kohli
Defensive against throw downs, working on getting behind the line of delivery, he tried getting his act right to the new ball. And then, attacking the spinners, opening up his shoulders/arms, the off chance he survives long enough to attack the opposition’s slower bowlers.
Then, he walked over to Virat Kohli, and spoke with him. The two chatted for quite a while, in full glare of the travelling media contingent. It wasn’t playing to the gallery, for Rahul was intently listening to the one batter he dearly idolises. So much so, even batting coach Vikram Rathour was all ears to what Kohli had to say, the latter gesticulating a pull shot/flick several times. Oh, to be a fly on the adjacent wall.
“If the conditions so dictate that the ball is nipping around doing a bit, then we can afford our batsmen to maybe be a little bit more conservative, keep wickets in hand and then target (the bowlers),” Dravid had said on Tuesday.
At this juncture, the Indian think-tank okay with a batter finding form during an on-going tournament. Turn back a few pages of history, and you will find captain Dravid had a habit of sticking to a formula. One of the big experimental points heading into the 2007 ODI World Cup was Sachin Tendulkar at number four, and both captain-coach (Greg Chappell) bet big on it. Here too, both captain and coach are betting on an agreed strategy, on pre-decided roles (not just Rahul’s), and currently on an out-of-touch, if not out-of-form, opener to come good.
That is where Rahul’s thought process becomes critical to India’s cause. Primarily, he is no longer a batter trying to excel across formats on an overseas bilateral tour. It is just the sole matter of one format – one mind set, and the ability to score big runs whilst carrying out the team’s strategic orders in a particular tournament. Perhaps though, the root cause of the problem is Rahul not being able to differentiate between these very team orders.
In the IPL, as captain and leading batter, Rahul is often at the focal point of his team’s strategies. Time and again, at both Punjab Kings and now Lucknow Super Giants, we have seen him take on more responsibility than he should, thus steering the batting line-up in accordance with his plans. Whether it is pairing Mayank Agarwal with Chris Gayle, or moving Deepak Hooda up the order, Rahul is used to making things function to suit his batting style.
On the international level, he doesn’t need to think too much, and yet he clouds his judgment. Trying to bat longer with the intention of catching up to a good strike-rate... well, there are others assigned a specific role too. It is not solely his burden to carry. His job is to counter conditions and provide a quick start.
The question to ask is, if Rahul realizes what he is truly capable of on his day? And can India afford to wait for it to click for him?