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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

T20 cricket: India’s K L Rahul riddle

It’s been a bitter-sweet year for KL Rahul in international cricket. At the start of 2022, he led the country in a Test match for the first time, though that ended in defeat at the hands of South Africa in Johannesburg. Not long afterwards, he oversaw another determining loss, this time in the three-match One-Day International series in the same country.

While he realised every cricketer’s ambition of leading his country, the elegant right-hander’s batting has gone south with each outing. His international appearances have been few and far between – indeed, the ongoing Asia Cup in the UAE marks his India debut this year in T20Is – and the returns equally disappointing, doing little justice either to his place in the hierarchical pecking order or to the immense abilities that have expressed themselves globally for nearly eight years now.

His appointment as Rohit Sharma’s cross-format deputy is the ultimate indication of how highly he is rated by the brains trust and the national selection panel. It’s a massive vote of confidence that the 30-year-old is presently struggling to justify. And therein lies the problem.

Also read: Flexible Suryakumar Yadav ready to bat at any spot in team

Through a combination of injury and illness, Rahul wasn’t involved in any of India’s matches between February and the second week of August this year. It was during this period that the contours of a brave, fearless, new-look India in the T20 format took shape. After the disastrous first-round elimination from the T20 World Cup in the UAE under the then dispensation of Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri, India have made a concerted effort to shed their conservatism with the bat and embrace the modern, which dovetails nicely into the vision of Rohit and head coach Rahul Dravid.

Towards that end, they have tried out myriad things, tinkered with numerous combinations, identified and encouraged like-minded but untested individuals to express themselves, and unearthed spectacular jewels that have shone iridescently. Rahul, much like Virat Kohli, has generally watched from the outer even if he might be an integral part of the team management; On his return to the national side, he has failed abjectly thus far to switch on and advocate the new philosophy, even if four innings might appear too few to suggest the emergence of a trend.

Wednesday night’s tortured, torturous occupation of the crease in the Asia Cup encounter against Hong Kong in Dubai offered a window to Rahul’s mind. On an admittedly slow surface and against a set of bowlers who demanded that the batsmen make their own pace, Rahul appeared to slip into mental paralysis. The feet seemed weighed down by a million-tonne weight, his visage was tense and taut and tight, probably mirroring the state of his nerves too. His movements were defensive, ponderous, and laborious, as if he’d rather be anywhere than on the cricket field. It didn’t make for pretty viewing, not by a long way.

India’s mantra in this rediscovered template for 20-over cricket harps on intent, positivity and aggression. Rahul looked like a schoolboy who had either missed these classes or had pages in his book espousing their virtues ripped out. He looked incongruously out of place, bathed in blue when his approach wouldn’t have been out of place in white flannels on the final day of a Test match with the series on the line and occupation of crease the paramount, nay only, requirement.

Like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, he looked askance at each delivery, fearful that it might explode on pitching. The lack of self-confidence was obvious to even the casual onlooker, and while the rest of the world might only have seen his misery in a game situation on television, it must be pointed out that even at nets at the ICC Academy ground on Tuesday evening, he barely laid down attacking bat to ball during his 20-minute batting session.

What’s particularly hard to digest is that Rahul has every shot in the book and some beyond it, yet is unwilling at the moment even to contemplate pulling them out of cold storage. That’s symptomatic of gremlins of self-doubt, the perfect recipe for disaster in a format that simply leaves no room for such sentiment.

So, what India does with KL Rahul, the designated vice-captain, the man who averages 40 and strikes at 147 in T20Is, yet suddenly has resembled a jalopy on a Formula One racetrack? As the rest of the field zooms past him, he is cocooned in his own time warp, detrimental to not just his own fortunes but to the safety of the others around him. Do they persist with him for the next few weeks, hoping he hits his straps in time for the World Cup in Australia in October-November? Or do they look for more attacking options – of which plenty are available – to ensure that there is no sameness in the approach of the top three that also includes Rohit and Kohli that weighed India so heavily down ten months back in the World Cup?

Logic and common sense might seem to indicate that the obvious course of action would be to send a more enterprising, less mentally shackled resource – say, Rishabh Pant, Suryakumar Yadav or Deepak Hooda – out to open the batting with Rohit, but more than any Other, this team management has reiterated through its actions that it doesn’t simply pay lip service to a long rope. Rahul’s place in the side is under no immediate threat – why not, some might ask – but Rohit and Dravid can ill afford for one of their senior batsmen to deviate so from team goals as to heighten pressure on those around him.

Rahul has a long road to traverse before winning over the doubters and the naysayers, and too little time to do it in. If that doesn’t free up his mind, very little else will. 36 off 39 deliveries against Hong Kong, with as many as 16 dot balls, will hurt. At the very least, it ought to, and badly. It’s up to the accomplished ace, now acting from fading memory, to reset his thinking and explode the belief that he is dangerously close to keeling over into the ‘liability’ category.

(The author is a senior cricket writer)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH)

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