Updated: January 3, 2022 1:17:22 pm
“Can we meet for dinner, tonight?” Just like the old times, but David Mathias sensed that message from his best friend KL Rahul was a bit different. It was 2019, Rahul was dropped from the Indian team, feeling “most useless and negative he had ever felt in life” (Rahul’s words), and life needed to be turned around.
The friends met and decided to find a way to beat negativity and fall back in love with the game. Cricket in anonymity, with friends, was decided as the way to go. They decided on the ground near the Bangalore airport where a friend Tejas Subramaniam runs Just Cricket Academy. Every day, early in the morning, for the next 10 days or so, a group of friends, all cricketers, would drive away from the city.
It didn’t take long for Mathias to spot the problem in Rahul’s batting. In 2018, in England, Rahul had been stuck at the crease and playing all around the front pad. Problems with the incoming ball. Problems with identifying the off stump. Problems with hitting the ball too hard. Problems with the hands, head, and feet. It had looked insurmountable, almost. Not to the friends.
“I could see that he was having problems with the incoming ball and that the bat was too far away from the body and head was falling, “Mathias tells The Indian Express. “I felt that hands were away from the body and since the bat tends to be heavy, it gets to be dragged even further away. When the head isn’t in a great position, then your bat doesn’t travel in a straight path. When the ball comes in there is a gap to go through. And top-class bowlers can exploit it easily, and they did.
🗣️🗣️ “2021 has been a special year for us.”
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 30, 2021
“That’s what I felt. I just saw it and said it. I must have said 10 other useless things but that one landed home! I didn’t realise that would make such a large difference eventually in his batting.”
Two dismissals screamed about the problem from that 2018 Test series. Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes had cut the ball in to clatter the stumps and the pad. The bat would come from a wider arc and by the time the downward swing would be in motion, the ball would be cutting in towards danger that Rahul would try to yank his bat down even quicker. It would come down all crooked. The head would fall outside the line of the off-stump. He was a sitting duck to both the nipbackers and the straighteners.
As the 10 days wore on, and since the problem was spotted very early on in the piece, Rahul started to relax and start falling in love with batting again. “It was a calm relaxed environment. Even the academy boys weren’t there then. And the coaches are the ones we all have worked with from childhood. No judgement. No tension. Just friends, bowling and hitting the ball around for hours and hours.” They recorded his batting too, checked with the old videos, and realised that it had all begun to sync in. Rahul was happy that he wasn’t going too hard at the ball once the hands and head fell in place.
“It comes from good hard work on balance in the stance. The alignment at the crease,” Mathias says. That balance is the key for Rahul. “He doesn’t commit to any one shot. He is in a very neutral but strong position. It sounds very simple but under pressure, it’s hard to do it. Only a few do it. Because of that balance, you can access areas on grounds leaving a short margin to bowlers to err. The pressure is now on them. The flaws against incoming balls disappeared, his judgement of the off stump became good and since he loves batting so much and faced failure, his patience has improved. He now preys on the bowlers’ patience. The whole game reversed, basically. That’s the essence of his success.”
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 30, 2021
Rahul stands, right toe pointing towards point but doesn’t get too closed into a side-on stance too early. The front shoulder now points towards the non-striker or mid-on at times and he makes tiny steps with his left foot as the bowler approaches the crease and loads up. Most times, it’s two steps – and the closing of the open-ness occurs by the time the ball releases. Sort of. The left foot’s movements are not only short but also light steps. Ready to spring into action, on his toes. He doesn’t stretch forward too much anyways. But these days, during front foot drives, the front foot does skip further than it used to in his bad days. “That’s purely down to confidence but also from the balance and alignment,” Mathias says.
The back leg too begins to inch sideways and only rarely does it get stuck. When that happens, trouble can peep in. Like in the second innings of the Centurion. The front leg was doing all the movement and by the time he arrested that, retreated even, the damage was done. He was cramped in his cut and the ball flew off the edge to the slips. He had tried a similar shot in the first innings – back then, the back foot had been dragged sideways towards off, the weight shift to back foot was smoother, and he flayed the shortish ball over gully. Or against Shaheen Afridi in the T20 world cup game. The left foot had strayed across, the head had begun to fall outside off stump and from there, it was all too much for him to get back in line to that wonderful nipbacker. Similarly, awkward bat-angle can be seen in the 2018 Woakes dismissal too. Another nipbacker, from the right-hander that time, had Rahul playing all around the front pad. It still is the best ball to keep trying against him. He has sorted out most of the issues though and the bowler has to hope for a lax in focus or an over-eagerness to play a shot.
“Just as his stance is neutral, so is his mind now,” says Mathias. “He is tremendously strong mentally. Once the technique thing kicked in – as in felt comfortable with the head position and the bat flow, that was it. The rest he sorted out mentally. Self-doubts vanish. It’s as close to ‘see the ball, play the ball’ – from that great balanced neutral position. And the mindset. He isn’t worrying about what the bowler is bowling, oh is he trying to target with the incoming ball or trying to get the outside edge etc…”
Mathias then shares how Rahul looks at his batting these days. “He would say, ‘I stay still and if I am in a good position and balance, I will have an answer wherever the bowler bowls’. That’s his reasoning. And it’s absolutely spot on. That’s the impression I always get when he is batting well. He is doing that regularly now.”
The cricketing world has been impressed with his judgement of the off stump. His talent was never in doubt. Even when he wasn’t doing well in that 2018 series, even the opposition were wary. One remembers a stray chat with the then batting coach Mark Ramprakash, who went, “Solid batter. Does he realise how good he is?”
The question is now put to Mathias. But first a bit about how the two met, and how long they go back, just to put things in perspective how well the two know each other for us.
It was in a U-13 zonal tournament. Mathias from Bangalore, Rahul from the port city of Mangalore. Mathias now runs a wellness pharmacy with plans to enter preventive care and an eventual tie-up with the sports world but back then was a slightly annoyed kid who felt the runs weren’t coming as much as they should. “So when I got to a fifty in that semi-final game, I celebrated a bit too much. Wild.” And when he took guard again, Rahul, the wicketkeeper, piped up from behind the stumps. “Haven’t you ever scored a fifty before?!” “And I laughed. We gelled from then on. And would spend 2-3 months together every cricket summer from then all the way till we made to Ranji Trophy squad.”
“It was pre-social media era and we spent our times mostly pulling each other’s leg brutally, fussing about where to eat out – there is no good place in Bangalore that we haven’t gone.” And occasionally to the movies. “The Batman – Dark Knight returns in particular. I remember we saw that three times in the theatre. We were so taken up that we pulled out the other Batman movies and saw all of them,” Mathias laughs.
The Batman would get inked on Rahul’s flesh too. “He has so many tattoos that I told him to insure whatever little empty space on his body and get it sponsored by some skincare company. He has a habit of getting a tattoo done in every country he visits.
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“Of all the tattoos, he was most excited and proud to show that Batman tattoo”. He has inscribed a line from Batman Rises – “Deshi Basara”! “It means “Rise” and it was such a cool scene too,” Mathias. That it was. In that scene, it’s established that only adrenaline could boost the body’s abilities beyond the normal that Batman needs to escape the really high pit. He uses the fear of dying to pump up his adrenaline as he leaps and climbs out of that pit to deafening cries of ‘Deshi Basara’ from the prisoners huddled below.
In his real life, Rahul prefers to climb out of batting pits through his calm and composure. “That’s how he has been all his life. You should see his parents – solid, intelligent (both professors) and calmer than Rahul even. He gets it from them. Doesn’t get flustered much at all.”
Even during the aftermath of that Karan Johar show? Laughter. “Oh yes then too. I remember I met him the day after that. We didn’t chat about it at all. We have an unfiltered relationship – share everything really that upsets or excites us. That didn’t feature much. Mothers of our friends did say, “Oh Rahul was such a good boy in that!” I like Hardik too. He is a good human, a genuine guy. The only thing KL told me is from now on if anyone asks you to recount any funny stories about me, tell them you have plenty but none to share.” One, please? “Nope, nothing!” More laughter.
And so to that Ramprakash query. “KL has a wonderful trait that when he does really well, he doesn’t talk about how good he is. And when he doesn’t do well, he will sit back, analyse and look at what good he did in the past. That’s a wonderful recipe. He stays grounded when he is doing well. When he isn’t doing well, he doesn’t sulk in the underground, he will actively look to bounce back. It also comes through in the way he leads. He cares about collective success, never likes to hog the limelight. Even as a kid, and it hasn’t changed even now. He will make a very good captain when his time comes.”
The whispers in the cricketing community in Bangalore when Rahul was young centred around how much he resembles Rahul Dravid in compactness of his batting. Solid defence. Correct technique. The version that has eventually offloaded on us in the last few years has been filled with outrageous shots – the lap-flick over square-leg to pacers, the aerial hits over mid-off and cover and the powerful biffs against spin.
According to Mathias, it all started after the first stint with RCB in the IPL in 2013. “He came back absolutely transformed. He had moved with the world-class players there, saw how they prepared, what they could do, and came back obsessed about becoming the best. There is a remarkable transformation in the way he used to bat – was always good, solid, but post that the range of shots and the attacking mindset was staggering. Chalk and cheese,” says Mathias.
“If you ask him, he will say he got lucky but that’s rubbish. The way he went to work to increase his repertoire was something. Where he would drive the ball say to mid-off, now he started to look how he can punch it over the region. Still purist and correct, but the final flourish was different. The mindset was different. That shot over square-leg came because he was very good in the offside and the bowlers had begun to tuck him up. Instead of losing his balance at the crease, he began to use his wrists to lap it up and over. Even the shot he played off Rashid Khan in the recent world cup when he went down on his knees to swat him, he hardly played it even in the IPL. He regularly updates himself.”
A setback had first triggered that process of reinvention. When he was dropped from the Ranji Trophy after making his debut in the 2010-11 season, he went to work. “He was a bit thrown off by it. He had never been dropped from any team from U-13 days I think. So this was new, but he didn’t sulk. He worked on his batting. I remember a subsequent game in U-22 where he hit a hundred but said, ‘it was the worst hundred he had hit. Very scratchy’. He doubled up even more in training. He came back to the team and soon IPL happened which lifted his game to another level,” Mathias says. “There is a huge difference in his batting from younger days. No comparison at all. I haven’t seen such a transformation in anyone else.”
In many ways, in Tests, it has been a return to childhood. The compactness is back. The hands are now held close to the body, the downward path of the bat is straighter, the head doesn’t fall, and the feet listen to his instinct. “He has put his entire being into his batting. He won’t let it go now. And if it dips, he will go to work again to rebuild it,” Mathias says. “The ability to underplay his success and not crumble when he is doing bad – that’s the thing it will make him great. He will end up as a great, I have no doubts about it.”