KL Rahul’s international career is an enigma. Purely from a qualitative angle, it is absolutely astonishing that he is yet to find room for himself in the first XI for India across all formats. There have been cricketers all over the world who have had to wait longer than their talent and class deserved, but cricketers with the talent and class of Rahul are not frequent, and neither do India have a completely watertight batting order to explain his exclusion.
His recent Test record tells a story, and has finally started to pose questions for the selection committee. Rahul scored a century in his third Test innings, at Sydney no less, but his real landmark inning and a possible turning point of his career came against England at Chennai in 2016. Chasing a big first innings score of 477, he cover drived and flicked his way to a 199 that will live long in the memory of those who watched it. Between that knock and the South Africa Test series this year, where no Indian batsman apart from Virat Kohli knew what to do, his report card looks marvelous. Including the Chennai knock, he scored 832 runs in 15 innings at a superb average of 55 during this period. Chennai set the platform, and Rahul took proper flight against Australia.
Against a seriously hostile bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, Rahul reeled off six half-centuries, five of them consecutive, assuring India a good start at the top in a high-pressure series. His conversion of the starts into big scores left a lot to be desired, but there were very clear signs of a heady cocktail of positive intent and ball-striking ability. It was a Test series that tested the character of every athlete involved and Rahul gave a glowing exhibition of his talents.
He carried that forward to Sri Lanka in July that year, where he scored half-centuries in both the innings he played. In the Test series against the Lankans at home, his knock in the second innings of the Kolkata Test set the platform for India to mount an improbable pursuit of victory. Barring the South Africa series and a failure to convert fifties to hundreds, there is very little KL Rahul has done wrong in whites over the last couple of years.
This is his first tour to England, and in the opening T20 at Manchester, he put up a performance which made even the oldest and most knowing fans of his gape in awe. He was already delivering at a decent level, but he seems to have gone up a couple of notches since this year’s IPL. Like it’s evident with Jos Buttler’s transformation into England’s backbone over the last couple of months, IPL form shouldn’t be glossed over, especially if a number like 659 runs in 14 innings hits you in the face.
KL Rahul’s biggest impediment, is that he’s strictly a top-order batsman and cannot be played in the middle order. Murali Vijay, his direct competitor for the spot, averages in excess of 40 since Rahul made his debut, and scored 402 runs in the 2014 series in England, where most others failed to get runs. Vijay’s 482 runs in the following series in Australia firmly established his credibility in foreign conditions. Rahul has definitely done enough to warrant a Test spot, but probably not enough to replace Vijay just yet.
Which leaves him with Shikhar Dhawan, because after that it’s Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli and Rahul probably won’t even bother looking there right now. Dhawan has admittedly been on and off with regards to his Test form and injuries, but Rahul needs to cash in on whatever opportunity he gets, to nudge Dhawan. He has everything in his kitty to make the South Africa series look like an outlier rather than a trend, and just needs to manifest that into hard, objective numbers which will then force the Indian team management to find him a spot.
Rahul’s a generational talent who is touching his peak at a time when the Indian team is spoilt for choices at the top of the order, but the one thing that separates the good from the great is that the latter find a way to break the door down if the latch is shut. Vijay and Dhawan are not getting younger, but then, neither is Rahul, and if opportunities come his way in England, he will have to cope with the pressure of playing for his spot and somehow eke out big performances.
Twenty two years ago, someone who shares his name and home city, got a chance to make his debut at Lord’s as a replacement for a senior cricketer. By the time he was done with his innings, India had found a new star. Should KL Rahul need inspiration, he would find Rahul Dravid just a few miles away with the India A team, and maybe pick a trick or two about forcing the selectors’ hand with sheer tooth-clenching grit.