When he got the Man of the Match award for scoring the Indian Premier League’s fastest fifty against Delhi Daredevils last month, KL Rahul said something that at the time seemed to be in half-jest. But after looking at his IPL numbers today, you realise he was making a statement.

These were his words: “I have been branded as a Test cricketer for 4-5 years, so it’s good for me to be up there creating history and breaking the record.”

These are his numbers in the tournament: 14 matches. 659 runs. Average 54.91. Strike rate 158.41. Six fifties. 66 fours. 32 sixes.

This has been, by far, Rahul’s best IPL season. This also ranks among the best IPL seasons any batsman has ever had.

To fathom the reason behind the amount of runs scored off Rahul’s bat this season, The Field spoke to two people who are perhaps most familiar with his batting: Coaches Samuel Jayaraj and PV Shashikanth.

Rahul first came to Samuel when he was 10 and an unpolished talent. Then, for four years – from his Under-19 to Under-22 days – he was under Shashikanth, who now coaches Karnataka. Both concur that Rahul is a hard-working cricketer with the gift of timing and technique, and it was just a matter of time till their ward became successful in all formats.

But this transformation in IPL, Jayaraj says, “all started in 2014”.

Sheet anchor at Sunrisers

The Rahul of four years ago was very different from the bearded Zen warrior who has dominated almost every bowling attack in this IPL. A thin, timid batsman he was with cropped black hair and no tattoos – a seemingly under-utilised talent with a strike rate of just above hundred.

He was with the Sunrisers Hyderabad, then, batting at No 3 or 4, playing second fiddle to David Warner, Aaron Finch and Darren Sammy. Despite the lack of runs, he didn’t mind the role of the sheet anchor.

“Batting at No 3, my role would be to rotate the strike and help the team lay a solid foundation so that people like Warner and Sammy can build on it. I am glad I could do that,” he had said then.

Sunrisers had the same role for Rahul in the next season. Again, he made less runs and made them slowly. According to CricProf, in T20s before 2016, Rahul had a run rate of 6.53 runs per over with a boundary percentage of 10.

When Rahul became a big-hitter (and a big hit)

Shashikanth believes Rahul’s transformation began when he returned to RCB from SRH. There, he rubbed shoulders with some of the members from the pantheon of T20 cricket: Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli.

Rahul had said after that season: “I spent time with Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers and asked them questions about what they thought I should do to improve my cricket and be successful in shortest format. Their ideas and feedback did help me in improving my batting.”

That season he was also made to open the innings. According to Jayaraj, Rahul is best suited as an opener in all formats. The numbers prove his hypothesis when it comes to the IPL.

Rahul while opening in IPL

Innings Runs Average Strike Rate
21 884 46.52 154.4

Rahul at other positions

Innings Runs Average Strike Rate
23 500 29.41 118.6

The following year, out of the 397 runs he scored for RCB, 213 came while opening the innings. From 112.69 in 2015, his strike rate soared to 146.49. The fours he hit tripled from last season, the sixes too.

Reasons for Rahul’s extraordinary IPL

According to Shashikanth, when Rahul first arrived on the domestic scene, he was compared to his legendary namesake, Rahul Dravid. There were similarities: lithe figures, solid technique, the gift of talent, and the name, of course. “But then, [KL] Rahul was his own man... he had his own game, own technique, which was very good,” Shashikanth says.

Of late, and especially during this season, Shashikanth makes a radically different comparison, saying Rahul now appears to him a mix of Kohli and de Villiers.

The Kohli comparison is because of Rahul’s orthodox (a tricky word to use when we’re talking about IPL cricket) shots that, almost always, evoke pleasure. But, of late, Rahul’s batting – with the scoops, reverse-hits and ramps – has also become adventurous.

Of the many aspects of his batting that he worked on pre-season, Jayaraj says, the horizontally played strokes were given more attention. Shashikanth attests to this and more. “He’s added a lot of shots into his repertoire now. He’s been practising them during the Karnataka camps also. It’s coming off now. Ramps, upper cuts, pick-up shots, reverse sweeps.”

Over 200 of Rahul’s runs this season were scored in the deep midwicket, deep cover and square leg areas. He’d scored over 90 runs in the third man and the fine leg areas.

Jayaraj says wicketkeeping also has helped him in his batting. “Standing behind the wicket, he keeps watching the ball, gauges the nature of the wicket. That, in turn, helps him while he bats.”

‘Stay at the wicket’

But Jayaraj and Shashikanth refuse to pinpoint these as the sole reasons for Rahul’s success in this IPL. The factors they mention are more intangible, unquantifiable.

One of them is hard work. “Rahul is someone who will turn up at 6.30 am for a 7 am batting session and leave after everyone else leaves,” Jayaraj says. “He’s been like this since he was 10. Even if he got out, he used to come back, sit silently for 10 minutes or so, and he’d ask for throw-downs.”

The second is temperament. A fair criticism of Rahul wasn’t that he used to score slow, it was that he scored less. The 20s and 30s frustrated Rahul and those who watched him bat. Someone with such beautiful shots ought to score more.

Rahul acknowledged this after a match-winning 54-ball 84 against Rajasthan Royals this season: “I think I haven’t converted those starts into big runs for the team; as an opening batsman that’s what is crucial. If you get off to a good start, even if you get the run-rate down a bit in the middle overs, if you are set till the end you can do the most damage.”

Jayaraj says, “He’s also absolutely calm these days. He can’t say why he’s sure about this but he is. I have been watching him for so many years now, I just know by watching him bat, by talking to him.”

Their everyday phone conversations end with a reminder from Jayaraj: “Stay at the wicket.” Rahul did that this season, more than he’s ever done, and he’s made a lot of runs because of it.