Another door opens as Rahul returns to familiarity

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What a weird 2019 it has been for KL Rahul. He was suspended by the BCCI in January for comments on a talk show. In April, he was picked in the World Cup squad despite being just a contender, not a frontrunner. Upon landing in England, he became the accidental No. 4 after the chosen one by the selectors – Vijay Shankar – hurt his shoulder at training.

On Thursday, Rahul will walk out to open the batting with Rohit Sharma after Shikhar Dhawan has been ruled out for at least three matches owing to a hairline fracture on his left thumb.

“Bro, what’s happening?” Rahul may well be asking himself, reflecting upon the recent happenings in his career. As with life, so in sport, when things happen unplanned, one after the other, it is best to go with the flow. Rahul has had no choice and that may not be a bad thing.

As a batsman, Rahul has all the tools. His stance is simple and not just nice on the eye. It allows him to play those gorgeous drives and lofts, the cheeky reverse laps and paddles too. Remember how he came out and belted his first ball for six against Australia? Or how he walked across the stumps, knowing well Marcus Stoinis was looking for a wide yorker, and then shovel the ball to the wide long-on boundary?

He played with such freedom because it was the last over; he had nothing to lose after the top order had built a potentially match-winning total. His shots were just a reflection of his mindset.

Little less than a year ago in Manchester, Rahul hit a crafty match-winning century in the first T20I. The knock elicited “the next big thing” gush from Sunil Gavaskar. His performances over the next couple of months would nosedive, his Test place questioned, his confidence dented, before he would somewhat redeem himself with a face-saving century in the final Test at The Oval even as India would lose the series 4-1. The next two series – against West Indies at home and Australia away – were forgettable.

Yet, Rahul would somehow sneak back into contention during Australia’s limited-overs tour of India in March, where he’d make 26 in his solitary ODI in the series. Yet, there was a sense that he’s the universal adaptor who could plug in to any spot.

As lucky as he might be, Rahul has worked to become an all-format, all-situation, all-slot player. Last IPL, Rahul had blasted the fastest IPL half-century, thwacking the leather with ridiculous ease that would leave even his opening partner Chris Gayle spellbound. This IPL, he decided to change gears while maintain peak strike rates throughout. Rahul batted 40-plus deliveries on six occasions, returned with seven fifty-plus scores in 14 innings.

So when he opens for India in the next few matches (or for the rest of the World Cup) Rahul is unlikely to be intimidated. His warm-up century against Bangladesh in Cardiff proved he can repair a top-order wobble and play the role of an anchor. In bigger battles, he’ll have pressure to contend with. There will also be the challenge of quickly establishing a chemistry and trust with Rohit, his senior partner.

Sanjay Bangar, India’s assistant coach, wants Rahul to just look back at his namesake – Rahul Dravid’s ODI career for inspiration. For Bangar, Dravid was a versatile player, who succeeded at every position the team asked him to: opener, middle-order batsman, wicketkeeper. Dravid might not have preferred some of those jobs, but he worked hard at each and became India’s painkiller.

Rahul, Bangar says, has that opportunity now. “The advantages of playing in various situations is that you understand the game a lot better,” Bangar said on the eve of the New Zealand clash. “So if you’re batting in the middle order and if you’re a top order and you get to bat in the middle order, then you get to know the challenges faced by the middle order.

“So if a player is able to do that — and if you look across the history of the game, players have been very versatile, and here if you can take his namesake Rahul Dravid back at the various positions, actually, it helped the team big time.”

Having already batted in the top and middle order, Bangar said Rahul already understood the demands of the role. “It also helps that usually you understand the game a lot better. If you’re batting in the middle order and suddenly you go and bat in the top order, then you know how challenging it can be, wherein you need to negotiate two new balls, but you also understand that there are all these boundary opportunities.

“There are a lot of big gaps out there in the field, and if you’re in the top order batting in the middle order, you suddenly understand, okay, the balls which you would have hit for four in the first 10 or 12 overs, you only get a single. So it’s a mental adjustment, and any player who is able to do that requires a lot of skill, but ultimately it will enhance the position that he will bat in, and it will help the team’s cause big time.”

The key for Rahul would be to go with an empty mind and play. And let things flow.

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