Around this time last year, KL Rahul was in New Zealand. The right-hand batsman had made a swift transition to a new role in the series at home versus Australia but the Black Caps in their den posed a different challenge to him altogether.
That was to be Rahul’s litmus test as India‘s new limited-overs wicketkeeper-batsman. And with what followed, you could say he came out with flying colours.
In the T20I series that kickstarted the tour, Rahul, opening the batting, made 224 runs at a strike-rate of 144.52. And in the following three ODIs, a much tougher format to keep wickets and bat as well, Rahul owned the No.5 spot with 204 runs at an average of 102.00 while maintaining a strike-rate of 110.27.
Rahul had earlier made valuable contributions against the Aussies in home conditions and help India counter tough situations in the three ODIs. The classy right-hander ended with 146 runs from his 3 innings at an average of 48.67 and strike-rate of 104.29 as India won the series 2-1.
During that one-day series, India made a massive change in their line-up by dropping Rishabh Pant and replacing him with Rahul in the dual role of a middle-order aggressor, who would also keep wickets. So if the onus was on Rahul to grab the chance to play regularly in the playing XI, he did that commendably against two strong oppositions at home and then away.
Even though it happened at the expense of Pant, inarguably the most promising young wicketkeeper-batsman in world cricket, you didn’t mind it so much as Rahul allowed India to plug a big hole in the middle-order without disturbing the team’s balance.
Fast forward life to another year, however, and it was KL Rahul who found himself precariously placed leading into the ODI series opener against England on Tuesday (March 23). This time the roles were reversed in terms of fortune as it was Pant on the ascendancy with his form and Rahul struggling.
Pant, who was facing question marks on his batting and fitness at the end of last year, rejuvenated his career by scoring impactful runs in India’s Test series win in Australia, followed by vital contributions in the home series victory over England. The explosive left-hand batsman also earned a comeback to the T20I and ODI squads on the back of his stellar form.
That coincided with KL Rahul looking off the boil in the T20I series versus England, as he managed just 15 runs from his 4 innings and was dropped for the deciding fixture. The batsman was clearly affected by the extended gap he had out of the playing XI through the Test matches and being in the mentally draining bio-bubble.
Virat Kohli backs KL Rahul despite form slump
It seemed that KL Rahul will be made to warm the benches even in the ODIs, with Pant’s form giving him a potential nod. Thus, Rahul must’ve taken a huge sigh of relief when captain Virat Kohli and the management kept their trust on him and retained him in the ODI XI in Pune.
On the eve of the series opener too, Kohli had backed Rahul in front of the media despite the slump he endured in the T20Is.
“When an individual is going through a tough phase, it’s not like he forgets how to play,” Kohli had said. “It’s just that mental clarity isn’t as good at the time. If you know what things are being said and you’re being told you’re out of form, then you’re bringing in another external factor into your system.”
“It’s a simple game – you have to watch the ball and react and hit the ball. You have to be in the moment and all this outside talk, to be very honest, is complete nonsense. We are going to back our players and try and give them a good mental space.”
With a busy calendar making it tough to manage form issues and still pick the right men for the right jobs across formats, it was admirable of Kohli to keep in mind the excellent work that Rahul has done in the 50-over format.
It’s not just about the runs, it is also how safe Rahul has looked with the gloves and the overall package he therefore is. Yet, above the skill aspect, what must’ve impressed Kohli the most about Rahul is his willingness to adapt to a new role last year.
The longer the game, the tougher it is to play a wicketkeeper-batsman. Yes, one can argue that it was only in Rahul’s own favour to agree to do the dual job, with his place in the XI not guaranteed. It still takes some guts to say, ‘okay, I’ll do it’, knowing the time he will have to now divide in training as a wicketkeeper as well as a batsman. The extra strain on the body and mental fatigue it brings with it didn’t make Rahul wary of the challenge.
The bravery and the versatility Rahul has shown must’ve moved Kohli’s heart. It takes something to impress the best in the world.