It was around midnight that freshly-appointed Karnataka coach J Arun Kumar heard a knock on his hotel room door. Groggy-eyed, he opened the door to see a pair of impressionable youngsters sheepishly standing in front of him. He was puzzled to see them at this hour, before the stockier one among them clarified: “You’d told us to knock at your door whenever we have a doubt. That’s why we are here.”
What could Arun do, his own words had come to bite him back, but since he was just a month into his tenure and professed a lot about bonding and approachability, he considered it arrogant to turn them away. Then Arun is not the stereotyped gruff coach, but a Harley-peddling, tattoo-screaming coach-next-door. So they sat around a table, and the more they started talking cricket, the more engrossing they seemed to the coach. It was quite deep into the night, almost morning, when they eventually left the room, and Arun felt happy that he engaged them. In the two good friends, he sensed the future batting bulwarks of the state, and one of them he sensed would scale heights in international cricket. It goes without saying who it was. KL Rahul had pretty much every base covered but Mayank Agarwal had a lot to improve, he detected.
The irony was that, back in 2013, Mayank was easily the more famous of the two. Rahul was stacking big hundreds on the domestic circuit, but Mayank was the flinty IPL boy, with fanfare swelling around him. But Arun was convinced that the bigger deal was Rahul. “I am not saying Rahul was more talented, but at that time he was a more matured, complete player. You could sense he was India mettle.”
Soon, Rahul made his Test debut, while Agarwal was clutching at straws to cement his place in the Karnataka side and was eventually dropped. But Rahul was always beside him, urging him to fight harder.
To play for India was a collective dream Rahul and Mayank lived. “He’s one of the closest friends in the team, almost like a brother. I was very happy for him when he was picked and when I called him to congratulate him, he told me he missed me,” Agarwal recalled their friendship. And when Agarwal got married, Rahul was kind of Agarwal’s best man, the guy who accompanied the groom to the chariot and then posted a selfie with an under-script: “Bromance boys. Lucky to have a friend like you.”
To an extent, they grew up envying each other too. “Rahul would always ask me how he could play big shots like Mayank, and Mayank would ask me how he could score big hundreds like Rahul. I used to joke by telling them to just change their bats. But they had great mutual respect and admiration,”Arun remembers. Rahul, then, had a chip-off-the-classical-mould reputation, while Mayank was more flash and swagger. Mayank was picked for the IPL as early as 2011, while Rahul had to wait two more years for half a chance, and it was only in 2014 that he cracked the code.
How they debunked and, to a certain degree, reversed the typecasting is equally intriguing and fascinating. Rahul’s transformation was staggering, from scoring his maiden Test hundred in 262 deliveries to smashing his first T20I hundred in 50-odd deliveries. Just after the last IPL, a former player even touted him to be as good as Virat Kohli. At least with the potential to match the Indian captain’s stratospheric standards.
On the other hand, Mayank curbed his stroke-play, tightened his defensive technique, calmed his once-restive mind and rattled out five first-class hundreds last season. Ironically, in the past two IPLs, Rahul has been far more indispensable for his franchise (Kings XI Punjab) than Mayank, who features in the same team. As if they had, as once Arun had joked, changed the bats. “He’s worked incredibly hard to reach where he’s now. It was just like how Rahul was back in those days,” he says.
The well-storied transformation of both players is fine, but the worrying reality is that both friends, after all, might not play together at least in the immediate future. While Agarwal can hope for a break sometime during the current series in Australia, the immediate future looks bleak for Rahul. Their mind-scape couldn’t be more different. Agarwal will land in Melbourne with sky-scraping morale while Rahul’s might have plunged as deep as the depths of the Yarra, flowing quietly beside the MCG.
More worryingly for Rahul, his game seems to have gone beyond technical rectification to mental indisposition, which is more dangerous. While chinks in technique can be corrected, psychological disintegration comes with career-threatening potential. While his dismissals in England and South Africa stunk of technical and temperamental inadequacies, it wasn’t merely the case in Australia, especially in Perth where he was bowled twice, once by a late-swerving Josh Hazlewood yorker. Okay, it was a terrific ball (though not unplayable), but in the second innings, he got out leaving the delivery, the ball ricocheting off the bat to the stumps. In the second innings in Adelaide, he played a bizarre knock, trying to counterattack like a man on a death-wish — maybe he trying to hit himself out of trouble like he did at The Oval — but such a high-risk template might fetch only occasional success. It can work for someone like Virender Sehwag, but Rahul looked grossly artificial.
In commentary, Ricky Ponting was shocked to see how Rahul’s game has digressed. “This young man seemed the part last time, but now he seems to carry some burden. I don’t know what’s happening to him, but I think he needs to take a break and then come back,” he said. Sunil Gavaskar too echoed the same in a television show: “I think he should come back and play Ranji Trophy for Karnataka. It is not just that he is out of form, he is just not there, and you can see that.”
It’s true that opening on challenging pitches overseas never comes easy, and there had been some fairly brutish surfaces he had to bat on. But still, it brooks no argument that he has had an extended stay. In fact, among batsman only Kohli has played more overseas Tests than him this year. Both Rahul and Cheteshwar Pujara have featured in nine each, in which Rahul has eked out only 377 runs at 20. Apart from the series-opener in South Africa, he played all of the next Tests abroad, a luxury unfurnished to both Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay.
Besides, the team management has unflinching trust in him. “You just have to keep backing them and telling them that they belong and they’re good enough to perform. It’s just telling them this is what we require as a team from the openers and this is the role that needs to be fulfilled. I’m sure those guys have figured out what’s gone wrong in this game especially and they’re very keen to correct it themselves,” Kohli said after the defeat in Perth.
Maybe, Mayank’s arrival might usher in Rahul’s confidence. A reminder of the collective dream they’d once nurtured, memories of the nights they’d knocked on their coach’s room for advice, reminiscences of the carefree days in Bangalore, might fuel Rahul to retrace the forgotten steps. Or he can just change bats — score truckloads of runs and reclaim his confidence.