It is a sign of his increasing maturity that even though he is more or less certain to miss India’s defence of the Champions Trophy in England in June, KL Rahul is not beating himself up. It’s easy to see that his equanimity at the batting crease stems from the balance that is such an integral part of his personality.
Rahul turned 25 on April 18, and got the birthday gift he desired – victory for Royal Challengers Bangalore in their IPL fixture in Rajkot that night, against Gujarat Lions. On Thursday (April 20), he went over to the hotel where his franchise mates are staying to catch up with the guys, a fashionable sling with the legend the Arm Clinic – where he underwent surgery – keeping the shoulder supported. He would rather have been out in the middle, wielding his blade with singular elan and donning the big gloves with panache, but the labral tear in his left shoulder, which necessitated surgery in London on April 10, has instead left him looking at between two and three months on the sidelines.
During his visit to England to go under Dr Lennard Funk’s knife, Rahul made time to travel to Old Trafford. He watched his beloved Manchester United strike late to hold Everton to a 1-1 draw following a 94th-minute, injury-time spot-kick from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rounding off a bitter-sweet April 4 night for the Indian opener. He is, of course, a huge fan of the towering Swede and took a leaf off the mane man to sport a full-blown ponytail, only to chop it off after the tour of the Caribbean and the United States between July and September last year.
Rahul wears a quixotic smile when you talk about the mane, but quickly loses it as the conversation moves to the more serious topic of the shoulder injury sustained in the Pune Test against Australia in late February. The two-to-three-month recovery period means a frenetic race against time to be fit for the Champions Trophy. “I guess it does,” he tells Wisden India. “Looks very very slim, my chances. I will just have to wait and see, but the chances are very, very slim.”
“It is very frustrating, obviously, but it also makes me sit and wonder what I am doing wrong, if it is my fitness. If I sit down and if I have thought about it, I can’t see any reason why I keep getting injured so much because I am very disciplined with my fitness regimen, with my diet and I really look after myself and my body.”
There is understandable disappointment in the tone and in his face, but there is also the quiet acceptance that that is the reality and he can do nothing about it. Rahul is no stranger to injuries. In this long home season, he missed four Tests – three due to a hamstring injury and the Mohali game against England with a left forearm injury sustained while fielding in his previous, comeback Test in Visakhapatnam. As he warms to the chat, he admits that this enforced break will give him the opportunity to reassess what he is doing, because there “has to be something that I am doing wrong in my training”.
Rahul reflects dispassionately on the injury and its effect. “I just couldn’t get into a few positions because my shoulder kept dislocating, popped out and popped back in,” he starts, drawing a fairly vivid and disturbing mental picture. “That’s why I couldn’t play a lot of shots, had to restrict myself. I played (the three remaining Tests) with a lot of medication and a lot of taping. Surgery was – obviously, they had to fix it on the inside and they said it (recovery) will take anywhere close to two-three months. But again, it depends, each body is different, you don’t know how the body recovers. It is totally up to me and how well I take care of myself in the rehab phase. For now, it is just two-three weeks of relaxing and not doing anything and after that maybe I will start physiotherapy and my rehab phase will start from there.
“I have been trying to move my hand as much as I can in all directions. If not, it can get stiff and it will become harder when I get back to rehab to loosen that muscle up. It’s very frustrating to sit at home, there is not a lot you can do.”
The injury might have restricted Rahul’s strokeplay, but it didn’t prevent him from scoring a half-century in each of his next five Test innings, including twin fifties in the series-deciding final Test in Dharamsala in late March. “It is a sportsman’s injury, but the doc was surprised that it happened because of batting,” he reveals. “It mostly happens in contact sport, where people run into you and damage your shoulder; the doc that operated on me has operated on a lot of similar cases but of rugby players.”
Dr Funk specialises in arthroscopic (keyhole) and minimally invasive surgery of the shoulder, with his speciality being the management of shoulder dislocations, frozen shoulder, arthritis and sports injuries of the shoulder.
“He was a little surprised,” Rahul continues, “and even I was surprised and our physio (Patrick Farhart, who had travelled with Rahul and M Vijay to the United Kingdom) was surprised because there was no major incident or major event when I felt that I ‘did’ something. It was just that moment in Pune when I played that shot – not the one I got out but the one that I hit that went for six (off Steve O’Keefe, the left-arm spinner, a loft down the ground). That’s when I knew that my shoulder dislocated and went back in. Obviously I got out again playing the same shot, so by then I think it was completely damaged, I couldn’t do anything after that.
“In that sense, it was a little surprising, but people have had this in cricket as well. I was talking to Rohit (Sharma), Rohit also had a similar injury where he played a shot and he did something in his shoulder,” Rahul said of his India teammate, whose injury wasn’t anywhere as serious. “I remember a few people doing something like this, (but) it is very weird. You never know what is a common injury and what is a sportsman’s injury. Just bad timing, I guess.”
The pain and the shoulder popping out and back in during the Pune Test was the first time Rahul had encountered this issue. “I didn’t feel a thing before that. That’s what makes it even more complicated, to figure out how that problem started,” he offers. “It couldn’t have happened just then, just in one incident. Just to dislocate – and that too, I wasn’t doing any out of the box movement. It was just a very normal movement for a batsman and I have been doing that for years. Just for it to come out is a mystery.”
Rahul has grappled with multiple, often unrelated, injuries in his two and a half years with the national team. Ask him how he copes with it, and you can almost see the mental shrug. “I don’t know, it is very frustrating, obviously, but it also makes me sit and wonder what I am doing wrong, if it is my fitness. If I sit down and if I have thought about it, I can’t see any reason why I keep getting injured so much because I am very disciplined with my fitness regimen, with my diet and I really look after myself and my body. That is what is very frustrating for me – knowing that I am ticking all the boxes and doing all I can to look after myself and keep ending up with injuries.
“Now is the time, when I have two-three months off, to just sit down and see where I was going wrong, or what I could change in my training. [There] has to be something that I am doing wrong in my training, so to figure out what is best for my body … To be injury-free is a very wishful thought for a sportsman, but at least to be fit for as long as you can and minimise the injuries will be my goal. It is very frustrating for a young man who is just new to international cricket – two, two and a half years now. Already I have been injured twice or thrice. People have said that you are a very fit person, very strong in the field, and I do focus a lot on fitness and I love the gym regimen and working out and everything. It’s a little confusing period for me as well. I need to figure out a way that suits my body and what I can do to stay more fit.”
“It is a sportsman’s injury, but the doc was surprised that it happened because of batting. It mostly happens in contact sport, where people run into you and damage your shoulder; the doc that operated on me has operated on a lot of similar cases but of rugby players.”
One of the popular theories to explain non-cricket injuries is that players spend too much time in the gym rather than in the middle, working on cricket fitness. “Maybe,” Rahul concedes. “Obviously, if I look at the last one year – and I have had a few injuries in the last one year – the first thing that comes to my mind is the amount of cricket I have played. This is the year where I have played all the three formats, it’s my first year like that. Earlier, it was just Test cricket and come back and play Ranji Trophy, so there used to be a lot of breaks and a lot of time to rest and recover and train and get fit for the next tournament. But this year, I played all the three formats, so the recovery period became so much less, travel days were more. It was a very new thing. I didn’t know how hard to push in the gym or how important it was to take rest, when to step back. I had to figure that along the way and I think it will slowly happen.
“The theory may be right or may be wrong, you never know. I am not the specialist at this and I can’t really comment but personally, I do gym, I love going to the gym but I am not somebody who will lift a lot of heavy weights and I do prefer being on the field and doing activities. You see me training in NCA or in Bangalore, you will know that I am not always in the gym. I do a lot of activities on the ground which will help me play cricket.
“I am not big on getting big muscles or looking good for the camera. It’s just about how I could become stronger yet lighter – that is my mantra and that is how I want to be. I am still young and still figuring out what is right for my body and what suits my body the best. It’s all a learning process for me and I just have to take it as it comes. I can’t really complain. I have had a few injuries but I have also had one of the biggest years, one of the best years of my career so far. You can’t always have it the good way. I have to learn and it is good… Injuries always humble you and teach you to respect your body and respect certain things – value your position, value the sport you play, [because] it can all go away very quickly. It is not the worst thing; obviously missing out on cricket and missing out on important tournaments will hurt you a little bit but I am just trying to brush it off and get stronger.”