At first, it seemed a welcome development. Not that he was not scoring hundreds, but that he had evolved from a century-or-nothing batsman.
Then, it graduated to a statistician’s delight. Six fifties in seven Test innings against Australia, five of them on the trot. Soon to become seven half-tons in a row, and eight in 11 innings. The somewhat understandable inconsistency at the start of his career was a thing of the past.
But hey, where was the hundred?
For 18 months since December 2016 and that lovely 199 against England in Chennai, the runs came, beautifully, with character and class, with correctness and fluid elegance. There were pretty 50s, lovely 60s, attractive 70s, flowing 80s and a crucial 90 against Australia in Bangalore, but he had spoiled us so much that every time the century eluded him, the quantum and quality of runs tended to become footnotes.
Are you worried? Is it a mind thing? Disappointed at missing out again? What do you think you need to do? Where are you going wrong?
It wasn’t just the outside world that was firing these questions at KL Rahul. The intelligent, articulate, sensitive young man must have been asking himself these, and harsher, ones as the milestone batsmen covet the most continued to remain tantalisingly out of reach. Rahul was not out of form – far from it, except in One-Day Internationals where his last six innings have produced just 52 runs – but his tryst with the three-figure mark would just not come.
Until at Old Trafford the other night, adjacent to his favourite football club’s home ground that bears the same name. The monkey, seemingly stitched to him, was off the back. Finally. Emphatically. And, hopefully, decisively.
That the hundred came in the shortest format, where the degree of difficulty in unleashing three-figures knocks is the highest due to the obvious constraints of balls available, was no great surprise because Rahul has shown more than once what an accomplished white-ball batsman he can be without sacrificing the orthodoxy that has brought him excellent returns in Test cricket too. In August 2016, he had become the quickest worldwide – within 20 months of his debut — to complete a set of centuries across formats in international cricket by waltzing to an unbeaten 110 against West Indies in Lauderhill. He had batted then at No. 4, coming in late in the fifth over and still showing the nous, the temperament, the skills and the striking power to get to the landmark. At Old Trafford, he had upwards of 19 overs to construct an innings and shepherd the Indian chase, both of which he accomplished with breathtaking efficiency.
Rahul had found different methods of getting himself dismissed in the phase between his Chennai 199 and his 101 not out in Manchester. As the fifties mounted but didn’t reach their logical conclusion, so must have his anxiety though during that drought, he maintained an outward air of nonchalance. His subsequent admission to Dinesh Karthik in an on-camera interaction between teammates the other day showed that while he might have appeared calm, he had understandably been battling inner demons.
“This means the world to me, it is very special because the last international hundred I got was about two years ago,” he told Karthik. “It’s been a rough road in the last one and a half years with injuries. I haven’t chased anything with this much heart and passion. I’ve always said that I’ve not been somebody who has chased numbers but when I wasn’t getting the three-figure mark, I realised how important it was.”
Cricket being the numbers game that it is, it is often stats around which a player’s legacy is constructed. Few batsmen have played more influential Test innings for India than VVS Laxman, yet one of his regrets despite several match-defining knocks between 50 and 99 is that he didn’t make more than 17 tons in 134 Tests. Admittedly, Laxman will eternally be more than mere cold figures, but yes, 23 hundreds, for instance, would have a better ring to it than 17.
Rahul doesn’t need to worry about these little things, not when he is just three and a half years into his international career, not with seven international tons across formats in 51 appearances. He is at that stage where he won’t even be thinking history and legacy and his eventual status in Indian cricket. At 26, his whole cricketing life is ahead of him. Several stirring deeds certainly lie in store because he is clearly India’s best all-format player with the exception of Virat Kohli.
Rahul has been one of the biggest sufferers in India’s quest for middle-order balance in 50-over cricket that now seems to have been addressed, YoYo results willing, with the luxury of Dinesh Karthik, Manish Pandey, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav to choose from. With the World Cup less than 11 months away, the team management has to find a place for Rahul. Whether that will mean he bats at No. 3, behind Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, and ahead of Kohli, or whether he displaces one of the two openers is something the management group must decide. Dhawan’s left-handedness is a temptation that might appear too overwhelming to resist, but whether that is reason enough to sacrifice the wondrous skills of Rahul is the big question.
A clearer picture should emerge next week when the England ODIs begin. Rahul was touted as a potential ODI No. 4 ahead of the series in Sri Lanka last year, but he played exactly one game at that spot, and hasn’t figured in a 50-over international since that series when he only made 28 in three hits and was dismissed each time by Akila Dananjaya.
Far more sage and revered voices have called for the need to nurture the prodigious talent of the classicist from Bangalore with care. Rahul is too precious a commodity to be warming the bench or, worse, watching ODIs on the telly. While he doesn’t need molly-coddling or special treatment, a decent run to reinforce his 50-over credentials won’t be out of place. As things stand now, his ought be the second name on the Indian team sheet for all three variants, behind the skipper.
For Rahul, this is just the beginning of the ride. The IPL, and the freedom as well as the responsibility that batting at the top of the tree for Kings XI Punjab brought, set him up superbly for the international challenges to follow. He has made all the right moves since – 54 in the Afghanistan Test, 70 against Ireland in the second T20I and now this hundred in his three subsequent digs for the country. England over the next two months will offer him the chance to elevate his batting and his standing to the next level, something the focussed but hardly self-absorbed young man won’t be unaware of.