This is by no means a fresh observation: there must be something about the name Rahul in Indian cricket. Much like his namesake and former Indian captain, KL Rahul is fast developing a reputation of being Indian cricket’s Mr. Adaptable.
In his rollercoaster career so far, the batsman from Karnataka has been given various roles. Middle order batsman, specialist Test opener, top order in all formats, back to the middle order in ODIs but opening in T20Is, and most recently, the man to don the gloves.
And, mirroring that, a new season in the Indian Premier League has invariably thrown a fresh challenge at Rahul. It’s happening again in 2020. Can he ace it?
“We are happy to appoint Rahul as our captain for the upcoming season. He has been through a lot in the last year or so and has now come back strongly,” Kings XI Punjab co-owner Ness Wadia had said on the day of the auction before this season to confirm what had not been entirely clear after R Ashwin’s move to Delhi Capitals. Some thought KXIP would look to buy a captain, with the likes of Aaron Finch and Eoin Morgan available.
They did not, and apparently they were not even looking.
“He has silenced his critics. You will get to see his ability not just as a batsman but also as a captain. He was our unanimous choice,” Wadia had added.
A rollercoaster IPL journey
In 2013, in his first stint with Royal Challengers Bangalore, he played just five matches (batted only twice). In 2014 and 2015, he had an unimpressive stint with Sunrisers Hyderabad.
It was 2016 that saw Rahul make his breakthrough. He had an impressive season, playing a supporting role during the monster run that Virat Kohli was on.
“IPL 2016 was the key moment for me to start believing in myself and my shorter-format abilities. Once people saw it they started believing it too. I think it is very important when your own team-mates start believing that you have the game,” he had told ESPNCricinfo.
Then 2017 happened. He missed the IPL due to an injury. When one thought he would kick up a notch, after a season of international cricket under his belt, an injury sustained during Border-Gavaskar trophy meant that he was sidelined for the entire tournament. A shoulder surgery not only made him miss IPL but also the Champions Trophy in England. Ahead of the next auction, he was let go by the franchise he considered home.
There were no questions over his talent but his effectiveness had to be proven all over again. And, in what must have been a shot in the arm, his value was evident when he went to KXIP for a whopping Rs 11 crores in the next auction. He revelled as the franchise’s star batsman instead of playing back-up to Kohli and AB de Villiers. Who can forget his stunning half century in the second match of the season.
But then, he was back under pressure before IPL 2019 on multiple fronts. The year had started with the Koffee with Karan controversy, and there were doubts over his place in the Indian side and whether he will make it to the World Cup squad. And even during the IPL, there were distractions with meeting the Ombudsman, whether he will be suspended and what not.
But through it all, he had another good campaign with the bat, albeit in a different role to the dasher from the previous season. He wanted to take his teams past the finish line more often, and in doing so, gave up a bit of flair, played within himself. It bore mixed results and the playoff finish eluded his team but he once again finished the season strongly.
Fast forward a year, and so it has come to pass that Rahul will have another dimension of his cricketing skillset tested to the limits during IPL. And mind you, in the intervening time, he has become India’s first-choice white-ball wicket-keeper too.
Rahul, speaking about the possibility of seeing shades of Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni in his captaincy, said after reaching UAE: “Of course. They have been the most inspiring cricketers and leaders in the last 10 years at least. Having the opportunity to play under them is a great learning.
“Both (Kohli and Dhoni) of them are completely different individuals and lead the team differently. But their passion for the team is the same, they always want to win and push the team together.
“I also want to use the same approach with my team and look to lead from the front. It should feel like a team, it should feel like family.”
Rahul said he has observed captains from all corners on the field.
“Hopefully, it (the learnings) is all stored in the back of my head.”
He added: “It is a huge bonus to have someone like Anil bhai (head coach) who comes with so much experience. He knows exactly what the players go through and the challenges involved,” he said.
KL Rahul in IPL over the years
In an other interview with ESPNCricinfo, Rahul made the right noises about the challenge of captaincy: “I am sure it will make me think differently. I can’t lie. Again, I don’t think it is going to change me too much, because as a captain or as a player, my aim is to win matches for my team. This year we have an even better middle order - we have solid and more explosive batsmen, so it gives me a little more freedom than last year. It all depends on the given day.”
KXIP have other wicketkeeping options but if Rahul is serious about retaining his place in the Indian side with the gloves on, common sense dictates that he will continue to perform that role in the IPL. By all accounts, it is one he enjoys.
Rahul is a rare modern-day athlete. He is versatile, he is supremely talented, he is hard-working... but more than all that, he comes across as a sportsman who is not afraid to talk about his vulnerabilities.
When he spoke recently about returning to practice from the lockdown, he spoke about having nightmares regarding his batting. What if he forgot the cover drive, he wondered. When he spoke during the Sri Lanka tour in 2017, making his comeback from injury, he had said there were a “lot of doubts in your mind if you keep going out and coming back in”. He was also quite open about the challenges he faced after the TV show episode early in 2019.
It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to discuss one’s insecurities at the elite level of international sport. Rahul shares more than just the name with the Indian cricket legend from his state and one only has to listen to Rahul Dravid talk about facing insecurities as a cricketer to know how important it is to first, accept a problem and then, work towards a solution by controlling the controllables.
It is this honest approach, combined with his willingness to learn and improve, that could make the Kumble-Rahul combination click at Kings XI Punjab. For sure, it is another fascinating challenge that has been thrown at the 28-year-old.
By now, no stranger to facing such tests, a battle-hardened Rahul will be ready take the next big step in his career.