KL Rahul has had a roller-coaster 12 months or so as a batsman. It all started with an incredible 14-ball half century in the Indian Premier League last year — he started the season with the fastest half century ever scored in the tournament.
Fast forward to May 2019, Kings XI Punjab brought the curtains down on another season without playoff action but Rahul wound the clock back to score another incredible half century, reminiscent of his efforts to start the 2018 season.
If someone had walked away from the television set at the end of the first five balls of KXIP’s run-chase against Chennai Super Kings on Sunday, they would have seen a frustrated Rahul. Not a single run came from those. He was unable to find the gaps in the field. At one point, he let out a loud cry of anguish when he could not deal with a full ball on pads from Deepak Chahar that he usually puts away with disdain. Things were about to change drastically, however, when Chahar bowled a short of length ball that was smacked over midwicket.
After the first five dot balls, Rahul’s scoring sequence went like this: 6, 6, 6, 1, 4, 0, 4, 1, 4, 4, 4, 6, 0, 6.
That’s 52 runs in the next 14 balls he faced. Technically, another 14-ball half century.
Capping off an interesting season
In what was the most clinical performance that KXIP produced in 2019 (in captain Ashwin’s words), Rahul made Chris Gayle a bystander in a breathtaking display of powerplay batting that added a wrinkle or two to MS Dhoni’s face. When he was batting in the middle, it seemed a real possibility that KXIP would overhaul the target before 15 overs — a scenario that would have taken the home playoff out of CSK’s hands. It was only when Harbhajan Singh dismissed Rahul that Dhoni had a smile on his face.
But Rahul’s blistering innings was enough, ultimately, for KXIP to coast home with two full overs to spare.
“For years, I have been branded a Test cricketer. It’s good for me to be up there, creating history and breaking records. Hope to continue this way,” Rahul had said after his 16-ball 51 helped Kings XI Punjab, his new franchise, begin the R Ashwin-era in dominating fashion against the erstwhile Delhi Daredevils last season.
In the thirteen months since, plenty has happened in his career. His remarkable exploits in IPL 2018 were followed by turbulent times as a India player across formats. Just when you thought he was going to live up to all the expectations and hype surrounding him as the best all-format player in the Indian set-up after Virat Kohli, his career with the national team hit a few speed bumps and then one big roadblock in January this year, threatening to derail his progress.
And then came the IPL again. This time around, we saw a different Rahul to the one who dismissed bowling attacks out of his sight in 2018. Before the final league match against Chennai Super Kings, he had made 522 runs in 13 matches at a strike rate of 129.85.
Those are solid numbers, without a doubt. But compared to the 659 runs he scored last year at a strike rate of nearly 160, there was no question that we were seeing a more restrained version of Rahul.
“I’ve been holding myself back till the last game because my role was different — playing 20 overs and holding up one end. We knew there wasn’t much left for us in this game. Sometimes you have to alter your game and play according to the team’s needs. Tonight I was playing much more freely,” Rahul said while accepting the man of the match award.
The more interesting answer came when he was asked if he prefers the flamboyant version of himself in 2018 or the more restrained one of 2019.
“It came out very well for everybody [last year], when I had much higher strike rates. But looking back at it from a personal and team point of view, I won more games this year. I have been there at the end of the 20th over when we won matches this year while last year I thought I could have finished off a few more games if I batted more responsibly. Been a lot of talk about [the strike rate], but I know how I play, and we’ll win a lot more games if I play more responsibly.” Rahul said.
If anything, that shows a clear evolution of his batting style and the fact that he can adapt his game to the team’s needs. Sure, it did not work out every match this season (think back to the match in Chennai when, perhaps, Rahul was guilty of holding himself back far too much). But he has once again established himself as a batsman who can win you matches single-handedly on his day.
Going into the World Cup (obviously a different format), Indian cricket is better off with Rahul in form, with plenty of runs under his belt and confidence returning to where it was not too long ago. If the think-tank is willing to back him (which has not always been the case in the 50-over format), Rahul will win more matches in India colours than he won’t. Kohli and Ravi Shastri do not always follow conventional wisdom — something that has helped them clearly, going by the results across formats — but they will have a hard time shoehorning Rahul as just the back-up opener and let him warm the benches at the World Cup.