At this time a year ago, KL Rahul found himself at a bit of a crossroad. He was part of the first Indian team to win a Test series in Australia, but on the eve of the final day of that historic encounter Down Under, an episode aired back home brewed into a storm. Rahul’s Test form had been patchy enough for India to choose a debutant and a makeshift opener ahead of him one match earlier; now, a crucial ODI series in the race for a World Cup berth was deemed out-of-reach following an indefinite suspension.
One year on, it’s like he is the man for every slot in the Indian limited overs setup.
“Couldn’t have asked for a better start (to 2020). Each day I’ve been thrown a different role or a different responsibility, and I’m enjoying it for now,” said Rahul after being named Man-of-the-Match in India’s series-levelling win in the second ODI against Australia at Rajkot on Friday.
And there’s no exaggeration in that statement — Rahul, literally, finds himself in a new role every time he steps on to the field these days.
The last time he opened in an ODI, he struck a breezy 77 to set the tone for a successful 316-run chase in a series-decider. The last time he batted at number three in an ODI, he compiled a steady (if slightly slow) 47. Now, he was asked to bat at number five — for only the second time in his international career — and responded with a knock described by his captain as “the best he’s played at the international level”. Oh, and it also happened to be the first ODI where Rahul was picked as the designated wicketkeeper.
All of these instances mentioned, mind you, have occurred inside the span of a month. You can think of several cricketers who may not have donned as many hats over the length of a career.
The narrative going into these ODIs against Australia, as indeed the preceding T20Is against Sri Lanka, was all about Rahul versus Shikhar Dhawan in a prolonged audition for the Indian squad for this year’s T20 World Cup (and for the ODI setup too, perhaps, but that’s a longer-term vision). Going by the groove he found himself in at Rajkot — in both his roles — Rahul could well be challenging Rishabh Pant in the present scenario, something Virat Kohli quite subtly hinted at too.
“If he keeps like that, it opens up a lot of options for us. It’s a great thing for the team that he is becoming a multi-dimensional player.”
As an opener in ODIs, Rahul boasts an average of 52.60 from 17 innings, even if at a somewhat conservative strike rate of 81.84; in T20Is, he averages 44.33 when put at the top of the order, while striking at a more-than-formidable 145.09.
Rahul’s forays in the middle order in ODIs hadn’t quite been fruitful before Friday (70 runs from six innings, strike rate 72.16) — but in T20Is, he’s returned 43.90 runs an innings on average at a strike rate of 148.81 when not opening the batting.
Still, even considering his affinity for the spectacular when on song, it would have been nigh on impossible to predict the stellar outing Rahul had on Friday afternoon at the SCA Stadium.
To put things in perspective, the last time an Indian batsman scored 50+ runs at a strike rate in excess of 150 from number five or lower while batting first in an ODI, the year was 2013 (MS Dhoni’s 38-ball 62 against Australia at Bengaluru, going all the way back to the game where Rohit Sharma hit his first double century).
For greater context, chew on this: the combined strike of India’s lower-order (number six and below) in ODIs since the start of 2019 is 91.52 — only South Africa, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan fare worse among the teams that participated at the 2019 World Cup.
And here you had a proper top-order bat constructing a ‘proper’ stint in the middle (and death) overs, despite taking on the responsibility for the first time, in a must-win clash at that.
When you look back at the scorecard from Rajkot, Rahul’s effort will stand apart for his strike rate (153.84); when you catch a repeat telecast or a highlights package, Rahul’s sublime stroke-play will be the stand-out (good heavens that driven six off Mitchell Starc!). What most retrospective look-backs at this game won’t tell, however, is that Rahul faced only nine dot balls during his 52-ball stay at the crease.
Having walked out to bat in the 33rd over, Rahul’s ‘settling in’ period, till the end of the 40th over, saw him take 26 runs from 21 balls. In the final 10 overs, it’s not like he went on some all-out onslaught (evidenced by a relatively low six boundaries through that stage). But in wasting all of four deliveries, Rahul was able to keep the scoreboard ticking all along, even while Kohli and then Manish Pandey departed in quick succession.
India made 91/3 in their death overs, Australia 69/5. Rahul’s contribution to India’s back-10 was 54 off 31 balls.
The smarts of top-order batting experience — and, possibly, the lack of a typical finisher’s ‘ego’ — also allowed him to navigate the bowlers he faced upto; Rahul took apart Australia’s strongest and weakest links in Starc (26 off 13 balls) and Ashton Agar (18 off nine balls), but had no qualms in respecting the in-form Adam Zampa (seven from 10 balls). You’d take 80 off 52 balls for pretty much any scenario in a one-dayer, leave alone in a must-win against arguably the most complete bowling attack in the 50-over game at present.
As if that wasn’t enough, Rahul also completed a quick stumping to dismiss the dangerous Aaron Finch, and held on to two catches, while not conceding any byes.
So now you find a scenario where Rahul could be a plausible number five, a plausible number four, a plausible number three (but let’s not do that again please, Mr. Kohli), a plausible opener and a plausible ‘keeper-batsman.
One way of observing the situation would be to label it a tad ‘unfair’ on the player, who’s essentially being deprived of stability out of his own good-doing; the other would be to consider it a blessing to have someone of such incredible utility — a truly ‘3D’ player, if one may — even if only for a brief period of time, and make best use of the flexibility to address issues pertaining to team balance.
There was a time, in the not-very-distant past, when another Rahul, also hailing from Karnataka, also used to being a top-order bat, was asked to take up the additional ‘keeping pads and move a few steps down in the lineup. And it went quite alright, didn’t it? Rahul Dravid had an ODI career average of 39.16, which went up to 44.23 in the 73 matches where he was India’s designated wicketkeeper. Between 2002 and 2004, there were 37 games where Dravid, as ‘keeper, also batted at number five — in those, he averaged 49.16.
It coincided with a time when Indian ODI cricket took its first steps on the journey from mediocrity to superiority; think 2002 NatWest Trophy, think 2002 Champions Trophy, think 2003 World Cup.
Enough with the parallels, yes, because omens will not dictate whether an international cricket goes boom or bust (or neither). But you look at all these questions that tend to prop up around the Indian limited overs setup, all the dissections and debates to discover ways to get those major trophies flowing in the cabinet once again — and at once, you begin to see how Rahul, a year on from his lowest point, is brewing a quite perfect storm.
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