With centuries in all formats of the game, KL Rahul has shed the one-dimensional tag stuck on his back until recently. But the transformation wasn’t overnight, and it had to do more with his mindset than technique, explains Sandip G
On a late November evening in 2005, Samuel Jayaraj got a call from his protege KL Rahul. The 13-year old was playing in his first big tournament, the U-15 Polly Umrigar Trophy, and was desperate for a hundred. The call to his childhood coach came during the fourth match after he was stumped for 97 against Andhra. “I told him to be a little more patient, and you will get the hundred.” But every day until Rahul got his hundred, Jayaraj’s phone would buzz with request for guidance to get to the magic figure. “I used to give him the same advice, for he was doing everything right,” Jayaraj recollects. Four games later, the maiden age-group ton arrived against Goa, and Jayaraj’s phone rang that evening. Joy, finally? Rahul’s shrill voice carried disappointment, though. “Coach, I wanted to score a double hundred!”.
It was an early sign of Rahul’s insatiable appetite for runs, which is fast becoming his calling card these days. He is also been busy breaking down stereotypes of him. For long, he was seen as a first-class player, and perhaps not so hot in the shorter formats. He has demolished that perception but the real story is there has been no transformation in skill-sets — just a mindset change. Rahul has always had the shots; he has just gotten better in convincing himself that he can call upon them at will.
Before we delve into his cricket, we have to stop and stare at his hair, and at his tattoos, for there is another wrong perception growing about them. The long mane and the inked body have come after his IPL and India success but it’s not a transformation, again. Rahul, inspired first by David Beckham and then Zlatan Ibrahimovic, always wanted to grow his hair long. But one of the fastidious, conservative coaches counselled him to cut it short as it wouldn’t make a favourable impression on the selectors. “Once you become a Test player and score a hundred, you can grow your hair or do whatever you want with it,” he was told. Rahul obeyed him and waited patiently to realise his teenage-wish and when he became a Test player, he began flaunting his hair, neat and long, sometimes pony-tail, sometimes a Samurai bun, and now a Caribbean braid. The long mane — now braided in Florida — he wears itself is a testimony to his patience. “And what next?” is the rhetoric on his Twitter handle.
What next, was a question that he could well have asked of himself after couple of years in IPL, just before he had announced his arrival with a fighting hundred in Sydney in only his second Test. His first two years with the IPL were hardly rewarding or revealing of his potential. After an year’s audition with Royal Challengers Bangalore — wherein he whittled out only 20 runs in five outings — he was disposed to Sunrisers Hyderabad for Rs 1 crore in 2014.
He was sharing space with the likes of David Warner, Aaron Finch and Dale Steyn. He became good friends with all— the goodwill message on his Twitter page would testify as much. He had a sympathetic mentor in batting coach VVS Laxman. This, he reckoned, was to be his breakthrough year, but instead found himself battling again to adapt to the requirements of the game. He got a decent run of 11 matches, but could manage only 166 runs at a middling T20 strike rate of 101.21.
By the time the next IPL arrived, his confidence was bolstered by the Sydney hundred, but again the story was no different. He was spotting longer mane, had inscribed a few more tattoos in his body and was an obsessed twitterati. But importantly, his stroke-making had improved, and he scored runs at a brisker pace, 128, but still he couldn’t convince the T20 faithfuls.
He wasn’t frustrated, but slightly disturbed. There were words of appraisal from Laxman and senior teammates like Warner and Steyn. But he needed more tangible outputs. As usual, he reached out to his coach Samuel Jayaraj. “Either he calls me or I call him on a regular basis. Knowing him from a very young age, I knew he wouldn’t be too worried about anything, but there was some concern in his voice this time. My piece of advice was just this, ‘just be patient’ because he had the game and not to play ungainly shots. We all knew he could scores at a brisk rate and he had the shots. It was just that he couldn’t execute those,” says Jayaraj.
Similar was the underlying nature of their conversations when he missed the cut for an U-19 tour and when he was dropped from the Karnataka Ranji team in 2010 after three matches The coach always had the same piece of advice. Just be patient and trust his game.
There might not be those wristy curliques or oriental mysticism about his batting, but there is an angular elegance, a languidness accentuated by his lank frame and graceful gait that makes his batting endearingly watchable. Then in every rung of his career, fame and recognition weren’t too difficult to conquer. At the age of 17, he was already in the U-19 team. At 18, he made his First Class debut. At 21, he scored a triple hundred. At 23, he became a Test centurion. At 24, he has three Test hundreds in three different parts of the cricketing globe, an ODI and T20 century as well.
It’s been a fairy tale start to his career, and the early short-form disappointment was soon forgotten when he scored his second Test hundred in Sri Lanka. But, there was a stereotype that hastily pigeonholed Rahul as a long-form specialist. That was the time comparisons with Rahul Dravid were too irresistible. It was understandable as, apart from the name and the state they come from, they had other things in common, like their zen-like unflappability at the crease, a second-skill of wicket-keeping and an overall rounded technique.
Both had crossed paths years ago when Rahul had just scored a double hundred in an U-15 KSCA state tournament. Incidentally Rahul Dravid was also practising at the same ground, and impressed by the youngster, he went up and spoke to him. Rahul was obviously flattered but he told his coach Jayaraj he was disappointed that he couldn’t convert the knock to a triple hundred. That’s how fiercely ambitious Rahul had been from a young age. The comparisons with Dravid has neither affected nor overwhelmed him. “It’s a huge tag, people looking at me as next Rahul Dravid. It’s a great legacy that man has left behind. The numbers he has got, the way he handled himself, is respected by people worldwide. To play like him or to be like him is fun. I have my own individuality. I want to be myself, but that tag gave me lot of confidence,” says Rahul.
Like Dravid’s, Rahul’s short-form skills faced the threat of being grossly understated. Certainly, it didn’t convince Sunrisers. Later that year, though he was initially retained, was subsequently sold to RCB, who purchased him for Rs 1 crore to boost their domestic depth.
But at the first sighting of Rahul in the nets, RCB’s batting coach Trent Woodhill was convinced of his faculty. “In fact, I was sure of his abilities even before I saw him. I hadn’t watched his hundred in SCG, but I knew for someone to score a hundred in Australia in just his second Test should have a sound technique. Though it sounds like a cliche, the truth is that if somebody has a sound technique, he can score runs in all formats,” states Woodhill.
In the nets, Rahul wowed Woodhill with succulent strokes. “He had everything, the conventional strokes like the drives, the pull and the cuts and the T20-ish shots like the ramp and reverse sweeps. He played the fast bowlers confidently and used his feet well against the spinners. There was no reason he wouldn’t thrive in this format or any format. He was as good as anybody in the team. I didn’t have much to work with his technique, expect one or 0two areas that needed to be fine-tuned,” he says.
But the mental block had to be banished. “He once told me he was able to score boundaries of similar deliveries in Tests, but couldn’t get the desired results in T20s. I told him maybe he was thinking too much or trying too hard or maybe the pressure was getting the better of him. I assured him it was just a matter of one good innings,” says Woodhill.
So felt Rahul, though deep within he knew he had the game. “I knew I always used to over think and used to think about the results before focusing on my process. So decided to keep things simple. I knew I had the game, I had the strength to hit the ball outside the park.I just needed couple of good knocks to give me that confidence to get me going. Luckily for me, it happened in IPL and than confidence went higher. And once I got that confidence try to carry on for there,” Rahul confides.
The first few outings were as unprofitable as his previous seasons. But against Gujarat Lions in Rajkot, he conjured his breakthrough innings–an unbeaten 51 off 35 balls. Not a supersonic knock by T20 standards, but morale-boosting nonetheless. “From there we knew Rahul would go on to score more runs,” says Woodhill.
He ended the IPL with his reputation fully enhanced, managing an average of 44.11 and a strike rate of 146.49. Three months later, with a century on ODI debut and T20I hundred, he has firmly entrenched himself as a multidimensional, versatile batsman, hurriedly shrugging off the long-form stereotype. And he does so with an unhurried ease of switching on a light.
The technical adjustments he made were miniscule and subtle. It was more about discretion. Like for instance, in a Test, he would normally leave a good-length delivery on the fifth-sixth stump line. In ODIs, he would try to dabble it to third man, or if there is ample time he would try to thread it past point. But in T20s, he would try to cut it over point. A feature of his T20 knocks was a high percentage of lofted shots, not anything fanciful or manufactured like the ramp or switch hit, but straight-bat strokes played in the air. “One area he has definitely improved is his canvas of lofted strokes, but given an opportunity he would score the boundaries through the ground only. Only when he has knows he has the opportunity to through his strokes would he play those lofted shots and he has more power than he seems to have,” explains Woodhill.
Even the pet scoring zones are similar. Any wagon wheel of his innings will demonstrate his predilection for the cover region. In Tests, he smoothly leans on to the drives, almost coaxing the red nut to the fence all through the ground. But in T20s, he plays those drives slightly inside out, so that he gets enough room to loft the ball.
Also in T20s, he brings out the pull more frequently, even to short of length deliveries. The pull and the hook are something he had added to his repertoire recently. “He was not a natural puller of the ball. But once he became a Ranji regular, he single-mindedly began to work on these shots and now those shots come instinctively to him. He is in a constant evolution,” observes Jayaraj.
A minor alteration was with regards to his initial movement. “I worked a little bit on the stance and the timing of initial movement. That I feel is the key thing for a batsman as to how he is balanced, how he his head is after you do the initial movement. Timing of that becomes is very important. I worked on my head position too. It gave me the time to pick up the ball well and helped me in reading the line and length of ball well,” he says.
Even in the off-season, he spent considerable time fine-tuning his batting in the nets. “I could spend five to six hours in Bangalore, spending sometimes indoors. Batting at bowling machine, I used to bat out for long hours. I think all of that has made a difference in my stroke play and getting a better control of the strokes I play.”
Rahul was fortunate enough to closely observe some of the versatile batsmen around—like Finch and Warner with SRH and Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. He confesses he doesn’t spare any opportunity in picking their brains. He also learned a lot by observing the “legends”. “You observe what they are doing, and one thing I learned is how they prepare mentally for the game. Their mind is always one-up on the bowler. I also used to do it before, but seeing them I got more curious and (like them) and tried to get my mind ready for the challenge so it becomes easier when you go out in the middle,” he elaborates.
It’s too preposterous to compare him with the quartet of batting tyros of our times — Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root and Steve Smith. But like them, he is versatile enough to switch styles to suit each of the three different formats. More than that, they don’t discriminate between the demands of those formats. A bad ball, or even a half-decent ball, they capitalise irrespective of the format because scoring opportunities are too precious to pass up, and the momentum of the match is something a batsman looks to shift in the space of a single over, rather than an entire session. Far from being surprised, Woodhill attributes this to an evolved state of batsmanship, wherein top batsmen make unfussy transitions. “It was an old-fashioned way of thinking that batsmen should play only straight-bat shots in Test cricket or in T20 cricket, he has to wield the horizontal-bat shots. The modern-day batsman has no such inhibitions. And Rahul is a very modern-day batsman,” he says.
Not just a modern-day batsman. A very modern-day person too-unpretentious and unabashed, uber and uninhibited. An old post in his Twitter handle fully conveys his philosophy “My body is my journal and my tattoos are the story.” In another era, he would have been construed an outspoken, or a “yuppie with an easy-going attitude”. But Rahul is fully comfortable with how the world sees or perceives him. Like his batting, he is a product of this milieu. This might comes across as a contrast, for outside the virtual and the cricketing world, he is a chip off the old block, modest and unassuming, with not the trappings of a young, celebrated cricketer. “I’m a very different person to my friends and family,” Rahul asserts.
“Now, Rahul is like Sehwag,” chuckles Woodhill. He was referring to Rahul’s penchant for bringing up centuries with sixes. To bring up his ODI hundred, he hefted Hamilton Mazakadza over long on.He heaved Roston Chase to complete the the three-figure. Invariably, he wrapped up his T20I hundred with a maximum as well.
But Jayaraj is not surprised. For Rahul was someone who tried a big shot to reach his first age-group hundred and failed. “It’s not like he makes a conscious effort to reach his hundred with a big shot. If an opportunity presents itself, he would go after it,” he says.
His conversion rate across formats is phenomenal. of the seven times he has crossed the 50-mark, he has gone on to score hundreds on as many as five times. Rahul would appreciatively look at those numbers and feel he’s living in a fairy tale world. And now, he is a golden swan across formats.