On the eve of his maiden tour to South Africa with the senior Indian team, opener KL Rahul speaks to The Indian Express about his precise preparation for the mighty challenge of facing the Proteas’ premier pace attack, overcoming and unlearning the habits of batting in home conditions for an extended period, and not being able to figure out why he hasn’t been converting the glut of half-centuries into three-figure scores in Tests. Excerpts:
What are your earliest memories of watching cricket in South Africa?
My fondest memory of watching cricket in South Africa on TV is Virender Sehwag getting his debut Test hundred (in 2001 at Bloemfontein). That and Allan Donald running in and bowling fast. I have been there once with the India under-19 team and played at the Wanderers.
Your maiden Test series was in Australia, where you faced the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc. But this will be your first time against a genuine pace battery with four fast bowlers of the highest quality away from home. How have you prepared for the challenge?
Whenever I got the time, I have prepared keeping the South Africa series in mind rather than the Sri Lanka one that came first. I’ve been practising against the bouncing ball. They are the No.1 bowling attack in the world. They have different skills, they have swing and bounce. They are the best side at home and it will be challenging for a guy like me, who is travelling to South Africa for the first time. The conditions will be what I have not faced before. You take some time to adjust to the conditions, but once I do, I think I’ll enjoy the high-quality fast bowling.
Can you elaborate a little on these practice sessions in Bangalore?
Since Bangalore is home to me, I know the groundsman, which meant I could ask him to prepare the pitch in a certain way. I made him leave a lot of grass, make the wicket spongy and also leave a little moisture so that the ball does a bit. My sessions were early in the morning too, for good measure. You can replicate the conditions somewhat but never the quality of bowling you’ll have to contend with at international level. So you just prepare in whatever way possible.
What’ll be the impact of India having no warm-up matches there?
It would have been nice if there were a few practice games. We’ll have to make the most of the practice sessions we get. I’m sure we will prepare very well and very hard. Each one will come with plans for himself. As a professional, we can’t complain and need to be ready for whatever challenges come our way.
How difficult is it, for an opener in particular, when you have such lengthy periods of Test cricket at home or in familiar conditions to then quickly adjust to green and bouncy wickets?
I can only tell you this once the series is over. (laughs) In India, the conditions suit you. But the secret of our success is that as a team and as individuals, we never back down from new challenges. We love taking them on. We want to go abroad and do well. We want to put our skills, physical and mental, along with our character, to the test.
Is it challenging to unlearn the muscle movements that become so natural on lower-slower wickets, when you’re suddenly on a green-top against Steyn, Rabada and Philander?
That’s the hardest challenge because you get used to doing one thing for so long. And suddenly you are expected to do something different. It will be challenging for the body and mind, but I’m sure everyone is working. I have seen a few videos, and spoken to a few people who have played there before. But we haven’t, as a team, sat together and discussed the challenges there. We have 5-6 days of preparation time before the first Test.
Are there precise things that an opener needs to unlearn?
On Indian wickets, especially since we’re going from having played the shorter formats, pitches don’t do much, so you can stand and play a lot of shots. Once you go there, there will be a lot of seam movement. You will have to leave a lot of balls, especially against the new ball, and be selective in your strokes. You have to give yourself some time to get set.
There is a calmness in how Vijay goes about his innings. The way he takes his time and the way he leaves balls around off-stump. He controls that phase of the game and gives a lot of confidence, as a result, to the man at the other end. Shikhar is more attacking. The right-left combination also makes the bowler constantly readjust his line and length. It gives an opportunity to get more bad balls.
(Head coach) Ravi Shastri called you the most improved batsman in the last 18 months. Has he spoken to you about it?
He hasn’t said this to me in as many words, but he’s somebody who has helped me a lot. He has helped me mentally and given me confidence as a coach and is like a mentor to all of us. He is constantly asking us to be fearless and back our game. He is someone with whom I can talk about anything.
The only criticism against you in Tests is your conversion rate from 50 to 100. What’s your take on it?
Obviously, ek-do baar hoga then you say it’s fine, but if it has happened 8-9 times then you sit and think about what’s going wrong. And honestly, I don’t have an answer, considering it’s those early runs that are tougher to get and it generally gets easier later in your innings when I’m getting out. And I’ve gotten out in different ways. Sometimes I have played a rash shot, other times I have got a good ball. It’s all a learning curve.
Have you spoken about this issue with someone like a (Virat) Kohli or (Cheteshwar) Pujara, who are very good in this particular aspect?
I have, but it’s something to do with your own mental make-up. You have to find your own way to do it. What works for them may not work for me. Just thinking about it won’t help. I have to try and find the solution there on the ground only. Hopefully I’ll get over it in the new year.
Some batsmen in the past, like Rahul Dravid, would shift the ‘sweet spot’ on their bat higher when travelling to countries with more bounce, like Australia and South Africa. Have you done something similar?
These are things which all professionals have to do, and I have too. It’s more common sense than anything. You need to be proactive and think ahead.
You spoke recently about how you’ve understood your game. Can you elaborate?
I’m not saying I have completely understood my game. Each time I go out, I keep learning new things. When you’re in the middle, you realise how your mind functions. The body and mind both react differently than they would off the field. What I have realised is that I’m not the kind of player who will try something untoward or hit the ball too hard. I’m blessed with cricketing shots and I stick to that.
Keshav Maharaj is perhaps the best spinner South Africa have had in many years for Tests. How do the Indians ensure that they don’t slip into feeling desperate to take the attack to him from the start, like they did with Moeen Ali?
Individually, players must have planned something for each bowler. As a team, we haven’t spoken about it yet. Once we reach South Africa, we’ll start thinking about it. We have learnt to play spin bowling well now.
India keeps changing personnel in the slips and in close-in positions like short-leg, and we’ve seen a lot of catches being dropped too. You can’t afford that on a tour like South Africa.
We have spoken about this. We have recognised who our four to five fielders are for every specific role. These players will spend more time at the positions they are assigned.
Your tattoos have always invoked a lot of discussion. It’s like in some circles, people say you came in as a Rahul Dravid and then transformed into Virat Kohli! It’s taken a while for people to understand this change. How do you explain it?
There is no change, logon ne bola, logon ne socha, I don’t think too much about these things or care about them. It’s my personal choice. It’s my body, my skin, and I do what I want. I’ve been fond of tattoos since my childhood.
After a three-month lay-off due to the shoulder injury, the Sri Lanka series must have come as a big relief for you?
Touch wood, I’m happy that things have fallen in place and that I’m batting the way I want to.
Are you disappointed to miss out on the ODI squad for South Africa, especially after looking in great touch during the T20s against Sri Lanka?
Yes, obviously you would be disappointed if your name’s not there. I’m not thinking too much about it at the moment. I will work harder than before and try to make a comeback.