THE REQUEST is for a full-length profile picture. “It’s hard to keep up with your constant image makeovers man. I need a full-body photo,” you tell KL Rahul. “Do you want me to take my shirt off then,” he quips. But he’s duly informed that candid topless images of him have already begun doing the rounds under the guise of him being the new ‘poster-boy’ of Indian cricket. “Poster-boy?” he exclaims before steadying himself to pose. But despite being coaxed to do so, he doesn’t agree to take his cap off claiming that ‘the hair will have to tied up properly again’, and understandably so considering he’s just finished a practice session on one of the hottest days of the tour.
Few, who saw Rahul in his younger days rising through the ranks and turning heads as much for his prolific run-scoring as his familiar name, didn’t think that he would don the India cap before long. Not many though touted him to be the next poster-boy. It had nothing to do with how he looked or carried himself. It was more his personality. It was unassuming, unabashed and extremely grounded, almost Rahul Dravid-esque. So much so that a senior India player is learnt to have opined, “Iska naam sirf Rahul nahi, yeh hai bhi uski tarah’ upon meeting the young Karnataka opener for the first time.
This is not to say that Rahul has come out of his shell with the sole intention to prove a point. Or that it’s been dictated by peer pressure. More importantly, there’s been a subtle alchemy in his image transformation. More so, because it’s never seemed to have any impact on how he’s gone about his business on the field. If anything it’s coincided with a period of his career where he seems to have taken the step up and become an all-weather, all-format batsman of high class. But the basics have remained the same. He still remains as earnest and as humble as ever when it comes to the hard yards being put in practice sessions as well as his approach to his batting in a match.
He is the first one to insist that he hasn’t ‘changed a bit’, even if the plain vanilla boy cut has now given way to a man-bun, and the formerly soft-spoken muted tone now across in a deep baritone. Not to forget his incessant and vocal love for tattoos and the puffed-out chest. But never has any of it looked forced or put-on. Maybe because it’s a makeover that’s seemed organic at every step even if it has transpired in an era where young cricketers often struggle to find the right balance between their performance on the field and the image they want to portray off it.
His T20 debut may have ended in one delivery on Saturday, but so far Rahul has been a revelation in Harare, and shown why he clearly is the most improved batsman in India presently. Last week on ODI debut, he raced away to a splendid 115-ball 100. It came on the back of a terrific IPL season, where he showed the world that he was as adept at the slam-bam stuff as he was at the classical. It wasn’t really an innings that was laced with extempore aggression or brazen audacity. It wasn’t a pitch that allowed him that luxury. And as he spoke about his remarkable feat of becoming the first Indian batsman to go past three-figures on ODI debut, he sounded very much like a Test opener describing his craft.
“My initial plan was to see the new ball off. We knew the wicket was doing a little bit. It was on the spongy side. I knew I had to play close to the body or wait for balls that were short so that I could capitalise. So I had a set plan. Once I played the first 10 overs and hit a few balls from the middle of the bat, I knew I was looking good,” he explained.
“I was watching the ball well so I just kept it simple. I knew I had to. The target was not too big so I just kept it simple, knocked the ball around, ran my runs hard and once the opportunities were there to hit boundaries, I hit boundaries,” he further added.
For all the self-control and caution he displayed at the start, he capped his first-ever ODI innings in kamikaze fashion by launching the last ball of the innings for six to bring up his century.
And when asked about his mind-set before swinging for glory, Rahul suddenly sounded much like a free-spirited modern-day batsman, who believes in the here and now, and thrives on that belief.
“There’s not much that went through. I didn’t want to be on 94 for a long time and let a lot of thoughts come in my mind. I picked my spot and I knew if the bowler bowled there I was going for my shot no matter what. Luckily for me the bowler bowled there and I connected well,” he said.
The two answers and the thought processes behind them in many ways summed up the Rahul of today, and why he can now count himself as a complete batsman. Like a guitarist who can strum you a few melodic chords on the acoustic and yet shred a rapid solo if handed a flying V—Eric Clapton and Yngwie Malmsteen rolled into one. While his first foray in coloured clothing for India has come far away from the spotlight in Harare, he made his Test debut at the MCG in a Boxing Day Test. Enough said. And he had looked and played like a nervous wreck, probably in a league too far above his calling. He still managed to recover and score a century in only his second Test 10 days later though. But in Harare, Rahul has not looked at ease with himself, there’s been a presence about him far beyond his experience and age. He simply puts it down to the confidence gained from the consistent spell he’s enjoyed of late with bat in hand. He also attributes his baptism by fire in Tests for his confident beginning in the shorter formats.
“I wouldn’t have been such a confident player that I am today if I had not gotten that kind of failure in my first Test,” he said.
Even with regards to the sudden burst of runs in limted-overs cricket, and more importantly the rate at which he’s scored them, Rahul puts it down to a more a change in his mental approach than anything else. “I used to over think maybe sometimes as to how I will get runs in ODIs and T20s. I had all the shots in the book but when the need be, those shots need to come right. Like the square cut I played today. If the ball is there and I hit it for a boundary, that’s so much pressure is off me,” he had said post his ODI debut.
But you ask him about his image makeover, he literally scoffs at the query, insisting, “If you ask my close friends, my family, they will tell you that I haven’t changed one bit. I have always been like this” with the same surprise with which he responds to being informed about being anointed as the next ‘poster-boy’ of Indian cricket.