KL Rahul will be crucial to India’s batting at the World Cup as the Men in Blue kick off their campaign against South Africa. He spoke to The Indian Express before heading off to England about his batting, challenges the Indian team will face in England and if the controversy over the Karan Johar chat show changed him completely.
In last year’s IPL you had scored at 9.5 runs per over and only Rishabh Pant hit more boundaries than you in the tournament. This year, you assumed a more cautious role, which sees you controlling your attacking shots. What have you done mentally (and technically) to improve the shot selection and execution?
I gained a lot of experience by playing a lot of T20 cricket last year. I know my game very well now. I knew where exactly the areas are where I needed to improve. As you grow as a player, your skills don’t change. My approach is similar, but you learn to read the game better. I have tried to bring in that aspect of the game which will help the team I’m playing for. It could be for India, the IPL franchise or my state. Each time I go out to play, my responsibility is different, role is different. Sometimes the team will tell you this your role, sometimes you have to understand it yourself. You realise that in any successful team, one of the top three will play 20 overs, or bulk of the overs, which is very important. If you are batting with someone like Chris Gayle or Mayank Agarwal, who are so explosive, you can be conservative to start off. I know I can go from a 120 strike rate to a 160 strike rate quickly. I have that confidence and I just use that confidence in my game.
As of now, you can play either at No. 3 or No. 4 in the Indian team and the IPL season’s approach could well fit perfectly in both those slots. How do you see the 50-overs game? What’s needed to crack the ODI code?
I honestly will not know what to do till I play games and also believe that I’m smart enough and have played enough international cricket that I can figure out quickly what I need to do in a certain format to be successful and be more consistent. Whenever the opportunity comes, basically for me the key is to keep things simple. Be it batting at 3 or 4 or any place, I can’t plan too much. Every ball is an event, especially in white-ball cricket. You have to see the ball, see the scoreboard, assess the situation and decide the best game-plan. That’s been my learning from the last few years to understand how to come up with a good plan on that particular day and in those conditions. Especially when there are bad conditions, how quickly I can plan that in my mind. That is what great players and more successful players have done in white-ball cricket. These players adapt quickly, they understand what they have to do on that particular day.
Have you spoken about it to anyone? How to adapt?
I’m a busy, keen learner of the game. I do talk to people whenever the opportunity comes. Most times, the talk over lunch or dinner or coffee will always be regarding cricket and experiences of each individual. I’m part of such an experienced and dynamic Indian team, and I can talk to so many people, be it Dhoni, Virat, there is Rohit-Shikhar, I talk to them and learn from them.
Do you recall any specific instances where you have learnt tricks?
Nothing in particular, I have picked up small-small things from everybody. Sometimes, you end up in a situation when you realise I had a chat about this with MS Dhoni, or with Virat Kohli and what he did in that situation. I talk to Rohit and Shikhar as they are opening batsmen, I can connect to them where I bat. I always talk to them, talk about their thought process. I ask them about when they take a chance, and what mistakes they’ve made and what they learnt from those. It helps a player in getting better.
In the IPL, we saw you use the crease a lot more. When out of form in Tests last year, at times, you were found stuck in the crease – neither forward nor back and former cricketers in commentary said that your head position wasn’t ideal. What specific drills, if any, did you work on? And with whom?
I think the head position, the technique, looks good when you are scoring runs. Let’s face it. Not doing well is more to do with your thinking. You obviously have good enough technique to reach the highest level. The technique is there. When you don’t get runs, it’s obvious people will talk about the technique. I don’t read much into that, I don’t go too deep into the technique. When you get runs, everything looks good.
You play the hook shot really well and it could come in handy against faster bowlers at the World Cup. Were you always a natural with that or did you have to work specifically on it?
Nobody is natural enough, everybody has to work hard. Obviously gifted with certain skills, some people are gifted with timing, some people are gifted with picking the length and line early. Growing up, I played on matting wickets. I always enjoyed the pace and bounce and somewhere that has a big role or big effect on your game.
Any other shots that you didn’t have in your armoury (four-five years ago) and that you have deliberately brought into your game in recent times?
Mostly, the dynamic side of my game is hitting the ball for sixes, reverse-sweep, scoop, which is so important to have in your game right now. The bowlers know my strength now, so they will never bowl in that area. Bowlers will keep bowling in the area where you are uncomfortable. So one has to keep coming up with new shots, new ways to tackle bowlers. Last 4-5 years, I have worked on it. I have practised for it, be it scoop shot, coming in line of the ball and flicking it. It is important to have a 360-degree game now.
You had once said you go to the temple every Thursday. Can you explain what faith means to you? What’s your life philosophy?
For anybody, faith and belief are everything you have, nobody gave me the India cap, nobody taught me to go and get runs. It’s a belief I had in myself. Going to the temple is like going to a place where you find peace. While growing up, I used to go to the beach as I used to find peace there.
Are you a sentimental person? Can you describe yourself?
No, I’m not, not at all. My only sentiment is to win.
Just after that first Test, before SCG where you scored that hundred, you have talked about how low you felt. You had said that “my confidence, self- belief were all gone.. Do I even belong here? I was sitting in the room.” You said you were helped by team-mates. We heard that Virat Kohli took you out one night, M Vijay took you out another night. Was there something similar like that last year in England and Australia when the Tests didn’t go your way… How did you bounce back?
It happens in everybody’s career when you’re not scoring runs. There will be a bad patch. I knew my game hasn’t changed, am not a different player, am not a bad person. I didn’t want to connect every bad performance to everything. I knew it was not my time, sometimes I was getting good balls. Sometimes I played bad shots, that you do when you are out of form. I was very calm in my head and still very positive. I didn’t want to back away from this challenge or sit in the room and say, ‘Oh god, I don’t want to face this bowler, or I hope to get 30-40 runs and save my position.’ I was never in that mindset, I was always positive. That’s the person I’m, I know I’m not going to win always. When you go through bad form, you go through bad form. Just accept it and you learn so much about it. You take the positives from it.
We don’t want to dig into your personal stuff but clearly, both Hardik Pandya and you have bounced back superbly after that ban. More determined, almost. What were your goals after you came back from that ban? What did Rahul Dravid tell you in the ‘A’ games?
We did spend a lot of time with Dravid in the India A camp and India A games. I worked with him and went back to work on my basics. When you go off international cricket and have had a bad patch, you are motivated to come back to the team automatically. You are hungry in your approach. I spoke to Rahul bhai, my coaches, and I used the time off from international cricket. I knew I will bounce back stronger, I kept faith in myself. Am very happy and grateful about whatever happened in my life. Success, failure, you need to accept everything.
Were you more determined than before?
Look, I am always determined — that part of things never goes away from any sportsman. Everybody is motivated when you are representing the country, you never relax. It’s sport. Just that all 11 players will perform well or sometimes three-four players will not do well. That is fine and acceptable as well. When I go through a bad patch, you automatically get more hungry to come back. Nobody likes to get out.
Did that one episode (Karan Johar show) change you completely? Are you more cautious when you talk to people?
As I said, in life, in cricket, you make mistakes. You have bad days, you learn from them and try to be a better person. I never doubted myself, my personality, never doubted who I’m. My friends, my family were strong with me. I was strong in my head, I got through it and am happy to be back and enjoying my cricket.
Did it change you?
No, no, nothing will change me.
How do you see India’s chances going into the World Cup?
We all are positive, everybody in the IPL was in very good form and we had a great run with the Indian team in the last two-three years. The team is looking good and everybody is confident. Everybody is backing us to do well in the World Cup. We need to go there and enjoy ourselves. The energy will be surely high so will the expectations from the whole country.