KL Rahul and Punjab Kings have remained an utterly curious case in the last four seasons and it’s little surprise that reports are floating about on Rahul already having played his last game for Punjab. While numbers under the runs column might paint one picture, those under the strike rate wouldn’t make you feel special.
Impact is a word loosely used in the current day and age, but taking multiple factors into consideration like a game situation, quality of the track and importantly, batters accompanying you in the voyage – people felt KL Rahul had underperformed despite registering 659, 593, 670 and 626 runs in four seasons for Punjab.
During the post-match conference, right after the game between Chennai Super Kings and Punjab Kings, Rahul said some things that drop a lot of questions. He said that being himself would let the team down, and that is not what he wanted to do. By saying so, he implied that he was resorted to playing the anchor role for Punjab Kings, despite being surrounded by some other brilliant talents.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the strike rates and stuff. Myself and the team know how we want to play. I’ll always put the team’s needs first. I feel like I may end up letting the team down if I play how I want to play. But today, this was how I needed to play,” the Kings’ skipper said.
Rahul made 98 off 42 deliveries, including 7 fours and 8 sixes. It includes some of the cleanest hits you will see, mixed with cheeky flicks and wristy ramps. His innings weren’t just a spectacle to the eye, but also a reminder to the world what this wonderful cricketer from Karnataka is capable of.
The big questions arise here, why was Rahul asked to play the anchor role, when his best cricket in the shorter format comes as the aggressor? Despite his unquestionable ability to stick around for long periods if he decides to, was his talent being wasted at the Punjab franchise?
KL Rahul – Perennially a victim of team cause
Last April, Rahul turned 29 and despite being one of the finest talents in the Indian setup, he never really cemented his place in the team. In the ODIs, he was tried as an opener, at number 4, as a finisher-cum-stabilizer of innings at number 5 and 6. Now, he only opens for the Indian ODI side if one of Shikhar Dhawan or Rohit Sharma are unavailable.
Punjab Kings nearly did a similar job, overemphasizing the need for him to stay longer, whilst giving the attacking license to those who continued to fail. It remains unclear, and perhaps will remain so for eternity, as to who took a decision on Rahul’s approach. His free-flowing nature was curbed for most parts of the 2020 and 2021 edition, and he mustered some big knocks that were nearly of no use to the Punjab Kings.
Chennai Super Kings’ management of Faf du Plessis is a classic case study, one that Punjab Kings can take a leaf out of. Among Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis, no batter is a clear-cut anchor or aggressor, but more often than not, it is Faf du Plessis who takes charge of the attacking duties initially. Unless he finds himself in a situation where scoring becomes difficult, Faf is an uncatchable beast when they have plenty of wickets in hand.
To lock a player with a hefty duty, when it isn’t his natural game, isn’t the most proactive of moves to counter modern-day T20 teams. The old-school “Needs some time to settle” has gotten off the bus many years ago, with openers requiring to provide blazing starts, with a slight mix of caution. With Rahul and Mayank Agarwal at Punjab, it was the opposite, little freedom to attack and eyes set on playing long.
A player of Rahul’s caliber is allowed to take his chances, as on most days, he is too good a batter for most bowlers in the world. Punjab’s lack of trust in their other acquisitions to consolidate position in the event of Rahul getting dismissed early is another questionable aspect. Rahul was made the oxygen of this batting lineup, whose exit only means no life.
The Rahul we witnessed today, was a top cricketer at the peak of his powers. The urgency was instilled for different reasons, but Rahul’s statement was a clear indication that he likes taking his chances and playing cricket this way. He spared no half-chance, respected the bowler whenever needed, and yet scored at a strike rate in excess of 200.
With the mega auction coming up, you would have assumed Punjab Kings might want to pin their best player in the club until the time he retires. Rahul is getting no younger and deserves more freedom to his approach than what he received over the years. No cricketer in IPL history had a more successful four-year stint with a franchise like Rahul did, bettering the likes of Warner and Gayle in this pursuit, but if Punjab doesn’t provide him the wings to fly, he might seek shelter elsewhere. And rightly so.