Cricket

India vs England: Disciplined KL Rahul learns the art of patience to stamp his authority and reinvigorate Test career

For a naturally gifted player, we've always talked about Rahul's flair and flamboyance but in England, the talk around Rahul is of discipline and perseverance.

India vs England: Disciplined KL Rahul learns the art of patience to stamp his authority and reinvigorate Test career

KL Rahul leaving one alone in the England Test series. AFP

"It was very frustrating that the opportunities weren't coming my way, it was only practice, practice, practice hi ho raha tha. As a player, you want to be in the middle and challenge yourself so I kept waiting for my opportunity," said KL Rahul after scoring 84 in the first innings in Nottingham Test.

That opportunity wasn't meant to arrive as soon as the Nottingham Test in England for Rahul. He hadn't played red-ball cricket for India in the last two years. He had gone out of favour after a string of failures. In this period he had played just one First-class match, the Ranji Trophy semi-final between Karnataka and Bengal in 2020. His scores in that match read 26 and 0. He was only playing white-ball cricket. Even if he was in the squad in Tests, he was warming benches with middle-order packed and Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal above him in the pecking order. It's natural that the frustration was growing.

When Rahul arrived in England, he wasn't even the second-choice opener in the squad. He was the backup middle-order batsman. Then came a dramatic turn of events. Shubman Gill suffered a shin stress fracture which ruled him out of the series. It meant Mayank Agarwal would get the opening spot alongside Rohit Sharma. Rahul got a chance in the warm-up game against County Select XI and hit a century coming in at 5.

Then Prithvi Shaw was called up for cover from the Sri Lanka tour which meant that Rahul still wasn't in the fray to open. And then two days before the first Test, Agarwal was hit by a bouncer in the nets and was ruled out of the match with a concussion. That rare opportunity knocked on Rahul's door and he wasn't going it let it go this time.

In challenging conditions in Nottingham, he finished as India's highest run-getter (84 and 26) to put India in the driver's seat before rain played spoilsport. And then became India's first centurion in the series at Lord's.

Patience and discipline have been the key to Rahul's success so far in the series. This is the new version of Rahul we are witnessing. Calm, composed and a more assured one. For a naturally gifted player, we've always talked about Rahul's flair and flamboyance but in England, the talk around Rahul is of discipline and perseverance.

KL Rahul leaving one alone in the England Test series. AFP

KL Rahul leaving one alone in the England Test series. AFP

The way he's left the ball has stood out. He's looked to bide time in the middle, settle down and then up the scoring, unlike the impatient Rahul of the old.

The innings at Lord's was of high class. The way he constructed it. The way he approached it. And the way he paced it. He started off cautiously, kept leaving the balls or defending it solidly. There was hardly a false stroke as he gave the first and the second hour to the bowlers with movement in the air and off the pitch amidst probing spells from James Anderson, Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood and Sam Curran. His first 20 runs came off 105 balls at a strike rate of 19. But more importantly, he had seen through that challenging period, specifically the period which had enticed Joe Root to bowl first. Then, the sun was out, the movement subsided and the pitch went a bit flatter. The conditions changed.

And so did Rahul's approach.

Off his 108th ball, he charged down the track to Moeen Ali and smashed it over long off for a six. His first boundary of the innings, in the 41st over. The shackles were broken. The next 143 balls produced 107 runs at a strike rate of 72, studded with 11 fours and a six. A cluster of glorious cover drives followed as Rahul put on an exhibition. 47 percent of his runs on Day 1 were scored through that point and cover region. He stamped his authority right through the innings and looked in control. A stark contrast to the way he batted three years ago in England.

He's gone back to the drawing board, analysed his shortcomings and come back stronger. The lessons have been learnt and the corrections executed. In the last tour to England, he kept failing before he provided a glimpse of his actual talent with that counter-attacking century at The Oval, which was perhaps the best batting surface in that series.

In that series, he wasn't able to curb his natural instincts. He was going for too many shots and that affected him. On challenging pitches, against the moving ball and a world class attack, it was a dangerous approach. In 2018, he attacked 38 percent of the deliveries outside the off stump and left alone 50 percent. Fast forward to 2021 Nottingham, the attacking percentage came down to 17 percent and the left alone percentage had shot up to 77 percent in the first innings where he scored 84. And a similar approach continued in the second Test. Factor this, in the 2018 series, Rahul left alone 19.8 percent deliveries and in the 2021 series so far he has left alone 31 percent. That's a good difference of 11 percent.

"I was trying to play too many shots when I came here (in 2018)," Rahul said in an interview with Dinesh Karthik on Sky Sports after scoring 84 in the first innings in Nottingham. "That's one thing I took back home after the last series that in English conditions with the Dukes ball and with the kind of attack they have, you really need to be very patient and try and grind them out, play the first two spells out and then probably get a few loose balls in the third and fourth spells. So I was trying to be as patient as I could and be disciplined with my shot-making."

The muddled mind was also creating confusion which in turn had a domino effect on the technique. What was concerning him the most was a lack of clarity of mind and tentativeness. Quite often he used to get caught in the web of whether to play at it or leave alone and ended up playing half-hearted shots which resulted in bowleds, LBWS and caught behinds/in slips. Prior to this series, in the last 23 innings, he was bowled or LBW 14 times. It's a staggering number.

"I felt I used to have a lot of thoughts in mind, I felt that I could play two or three different shots for every given ball even in red-ball cricket, so that was something I realised I had to learn to control sometime when the going gets tough or when the wickets are challenging, or playing against good bowlers when the ball is swinging, you need to hold back some of the shots. Those were the things I tried to work on or those were the learnings from when I was failing in Test cricket," Rahul said after Day 3.

While there were small technical changes which made sure that his head wasn't falling over, he made sure that his prodigious back foot trigger movement was controlled and he got into a ready position in time.

"The initial movement for me, that's something that I really practised very hard at in the training sessions and nets," Rahul explained Karthik in that interview. "It is to get into the ready position at a precise time, you don't want to do it too early or late on it. And for me personally, I would rather be slightly early than late on the ball. The big or small movement depends on the kind of pitch I am playing. This (Nottingham) pitch had a lot of bounce and I knew I didn't have to get behind the line of the ball, I would rather be beside the line and try and open up the off side as much as possible. That was my thinking. That's why I wasn't moving that far across. Otherwise as well, I have tried to keep my initial movement as small as possible and try and do it at the right point so that I am ready before the ball is delivered."

That reduced trigger movement and clear mind have chased away the tentativeness. In Nottingham as well as Lord's, Rahul looked assured at the wicket, in his defense as well as the strokeplay. And he's developed this new method of tucking his bat behind the pad while leaving the ones in the corridor of uncertainty closer to his body. Which increases the safety net as well.

KL Rahul celebrates scoring century on the first day of the second cricket Test match  between England and India at Lord's. AFP

KL Rahul celebrates after scoring a century on the first day of the second cricket Test match between England and India at Lord's. AFP

With the best seat in the house, watching from the other end, Rohit said that the Lord's innings was the best he's seen Rahul bat.

"He was in control from ball one till we finished the day today. Very much in control," Rohit said after the first day's play.

"At no given point, it looked like he was confused or thinking too much. He was very clear with his plans and when you trust your plans, it definitely works. I thought today was his day and he made it really count."

In his eight-year Test career so far, Rahul hasn't really set the stage on fire. He's had a bumpy ride with a middling average of 35.26. He started off well averaging 44.62 in his first four years but then tapered off sharply, averaging just 22.23 (Prior to the England series) in the last four years (Since the start of Jan 2018).

'Challenge' is the buzzword every time Rahul speaks in press conferences or gives interviews. He loves challenges. He wants challenges. He accepts challenges. Life's provided him with another opportunity and a challenge, probably his toughest so far, in England. He's aced the initial part of it to reinvigorate his Test career. There is no doubt about Rahul's talent, the knocks in Nottingham and Lord's showed why the team management has time and again kept backing him. It's just that he hadn't lived up to his potential in red-ball cricket.

In England, he's got a headstart again, now it's time to convert it into consistency.

Updated Date: August 13, 2021 16:23:51 IST

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