There are perceptibly two KL Rahuls these days. The cluttered, tenuous man in the whites, dealing the red ball as if it’s a hand-grenade about to explode. Then, there is the man in blue tees, sprightly and bouncy, flaying each delivery like it’s a Santa’s gift. Whereas he batted wretchedly out of the Test team, he has batted prolifically into an undroppable role in the limited-over versions.
Baffling then is the perception that he’s a man in duress—the fortunes in different formats do often trespass. He clearly doesn’t come across as one, if you’d been watching the T20Is against West Indies, or paying attention to his limited-over innings on the domestic circuit. His white-ball form has never looked a suspect. His penultimate innings in ODIs was a stroke-ful 111 against Sri Lanka in the World Cup. His T20I ledger is even more staggering—the last four outings read 52 (35), 62 (40), 11 (11), 91 (91). His T20I average is 43.76, second only to Virat Kohli; his corresponding ODI figure is 39.11. At a lower rung, he’s been bossing domestic sides in the interlude between his international fixtures. He smote 313 runs a strike rate of 155 and an average of 52 in eight innings, before amassing 598 at 66.44.
This means he is a man who is presently struggling with his longer-format form. Rahul admits, he was under pressure coming into the T20I series, despite his rich vein of form. “I won’t say I don’t feel it (pressure) at all. Obviously, going in and out of the team is never easy on any player, you take a little bit of time to get used to the international pressure and oppositions and there is no opposition where you can just walk in and score runs, so it’s always difficult,” he said after his 91, a knock laden with gorgeous strokes through both sides.
When his mind is clear—in Test cricket, he seemed preoccupied with too many thoughts manifesting in everything from a change of backlift to stance—his judgement, in turn, becomes more precise. He is seldom in two minds, he stops preempting, his head doesn’t waver and the alignment syncs automatically. Consequently, he’s not rushed into the strokes. For instance, on Wednesday, he unfurled a couple of stunning uppercuts. Then those trademark cover-drives, the most aesthetic of his shots, the high-elbow, cloud-winking flourish of his follow-through. For the batting connoisseurs, it might have been an ethereal experience watching Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli in full flow. Like a three-man orchestra hitting sonorous notes.
There was a rhythm to his batting. He credits it to eliminating the self-doubts that had been tormenting him. The time away from international cricket was restorative—there wasn’t the pressure of international cricket, but at the same time he could keep playing. He admitted as much. “It is important that we keep playing cricket and be in the middle, that’s helped me and I have always felt that’s what helps a batsman to stay in good rhythm, not putting hours in the net, I’d rather be in the middle playing games,” he said.
Gradually, he rekindled his touch. “ Life is (all about) what you put in your head. You can only complicate it (if) your thoughts are wrong, my thoughts are very simple. I prepare as hard as I can, put in the hours in the nets. This game is all about confidence and being in a good rhythm and good touch. I can’t really sit outside and not prepare, all I can do is sit outside and prepare and try to create match feel for myself and I did play a lot of domestic cricket,” he said.
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He also stopped tearing his hair apart, wondering when his next international opportunity would wink. “For me what’s in my control is to keep putting up these performances whenever I get the opportunity and I am not at that stage where I worry about whether I’ll find myself playing the next tournament or anything (like that). Whenever I get the opportunity I want to win games for my team and be out there in the middle and enjoy my batting. That’s the place that I get most happiness right now being in the middle and hitting the ball from the middle of the bat, so whenever that opportunity comes, I’ll like to grab and enjoy it,” he said.
Had Shikhar Dhawan been fit, he could have been in the whites, away in Dindigul for Karnataka’s Ranji opener against Tamil Nadu. But he was in the blue tees, dismantling bowlers. There’s newfound freedom in his batting, a reflection undoubtedly of the lightness of his mind. With each passing innings, he seems to drift away from duress and move closer to blurring the two antithetical Rahuls.