Manchester: A jump. A salute to the dressing room. A dab. And then another dab.
It had been a while since KL Rahul celebrated a hundred. Let us count the days. In ODIs, he had scored a hundred on debut against Zimbabwe, on 11 June 2016. In T20Is, his first hundred had come against West Indies in Florida, on 27 August 2016. In Test cricket, his last hundred came at Chennai against, well, England. That was on 16 December 2016.
All in all, that’s 564 days without breaching the three-figure mark.
In this interim, he scored 10 Test half-centuries, one ODI half-century and three T20I half-centuries. It’s almost like he couldn’t catch a break. So much so, he scored two half-centuries for Karnataka in the 2017-18 Ranji season and another six half-centuries for Kings XI Punjab in the 2018 Indian Premier League (IPL). The closest he came to three-figures was 95 not out against Rajasthan Royals at Jaipur.
2018 alone has been a big purple patch for Rahul, but stretching back 500-plus days to what could – and should – have been at least 15 or so centuries, can be an excruciating mental block for any cricketer. Ask him about it, and he would just shrug it off, talking about ‘making form count’ and ‘scoring as many runs as possible’ for the team.
Rahul’s celebrations in Manchester, though, weren’t just about jubilation. It was also relief, there had to be some, for the past year has been a tough one, replete with injuries as well as inconsistency in team selection that saw him drop to third in the pecking order in Tests and out of ODI reckoning altogether. This one, this hundred, earned on the back of some hard-scored runs is precious. Mind you, not just to him, but to Indian cricket as a whole. Quite simply, it marks Rahul’s second coming.
Cut to 15 months ago. After scoring 393 runs against Australia with six half-centuries in the four-Test series, Rahul was gearing up for the IPL season. At the end of 2016-17, Shikhar Dhawan was not part of the Test squad and his place in the ODI arena was under threat too. Meanwhile, Rahul was an obvious pick and started in all three formats. Suddenly, he had to go to London for shoulder surgery, and it signalled the end of his Champions Trophy hopes as well. The dip in his graph didn’t end there, however.
Dhawan and Rohit Sharma blasted India to the final against Pakistan, and Rahul automatically shifted down the pecking order. Suddenly, he was only assured a starting ‘opening’ spot in two formats, shifted down to the middle in ODIs as part of the 2019 World Cup experimentation. A month later, when the ODI series against New Zealand came about, Rahul was left out of the squad altogether.
Another month went by, and Dhawan enjoyed further ascendancy in the form in the Test arena. When the moment of truth arrived in South Africa (first Test in Cape Town, Rahul was demoted to third-choice opener behind Dhawan and Murali Vijay. In less than 12 months, he was now assured of a starting spot in only one format – a remarkable downturn thanks more to circumstances and less to form.
“That injury was a huge disappointment. But I have never been too greedy about things that aren’t in my control,” he told this writer in a freewheeling conversation during the recent IPL season.
Would he want to try out a middle-order spot again, was the obvious question herein. “That is for the team management and selectors to decide. My focus is on winning games and enjoying myself in the IPL. These things will take care of themselves when the right time comes,” Rahul had replied.
In that light, Rahul’s 2018 IPL form was not only a mirror image but also an extension of his 2016 IPL form. That run had helped him gain a foothold in the limited-overs’ squad, and it carried enough weight even after a year had passed. Remember, when during the 2017 Sri Lanka tour, skipper Virat Kohli had deemed that Rahul ‘simply couldn’t be left out’ of the playing eleven?
A rich vein of form such as his present one can sometimes be an aberration of reality. But Rahul has scored against the top bowlers of the world in the IPL as also now against one of the best limited-overs’ outfits in world cricket. Only last month, England pummelled Australia into submission. And this week, Rahul has plundered them for an unbeaten hundred out of a 160-run target.
It was a chanceless knock, one that exuded complete control of the proceedings. At times, Rahul is prone to playing some attacking non-existent shot that gets him in trouble, especially after the half-century mark. But not this time, for the desire to see the team across the victory line matches the urge to get himself past the finishing marker for a change as well.
His innings was but an enhanced exaggeration of his IPL form, one that has far-reaching conclusions for the Indian team. For the past 4-5 years, this team has been desirous of a second foil to Kohli, someone who can anchor the innings or bulldoze the opposition as per situation, and that too across all formats.
Rohit Sharma cannot do it in Test cricket. Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane are too inconsistent. Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara are restricted to one format and MS Dhoni is in the twilight of his career. This aforementioned second coming of Rahul could see him become the perfect foil to Kohli in this Indian batting line-up, and indeed, across all formats. Make no mistake it is the need of the hour.
In this current purple-form avatar, he is the ‘Rahul Dravid’ to Kohli’s ‘Sachin Tendulkar’ act. Or rather, as Sunil Gavaskar aptly said during the 2018 IPL, “KL Rahul is the next big thing in Indian cricket”.