There is plenty to admire about KL Rahul. He is a team player, a good opening batsman, a fine slip fielder and a player who has the game to excel in Test cricket in all conditions. He is prepared to take a few blows, can bat for a long time and with every innings promises so much more. At The Oval on Tuesday, Rahul played one of the finest fourth innings knocks for India, scoring 149 to prolong the match late into the last session of the final day.
It was Rahul's fifth Test century. It pushed his average towards 40 and, in the process, justified the team's decision to persist with him despite a series of low scores in the first four matches. But now with 29 Tests under the belt, it is time for him to assume extra responsibility and start scoring the daddy hundreds in matches that still have an impact on the series.
Undoubtedly, Rahul's century will be hailed as one of the finest, but it should not take away from the fact that the series was dead. In a way, Rahul was prolonging the inevitable. And when it comes to competitive games, he's not been able to pull his weight. He has the composure, he has the shots and he has the temperament to go along with his talent, but after 29 Tests his numbers suggest that he only produces his best when it matters the least for his country.
In the five dead rubbers Rahul has played in, he has accumulated 612 runs at a phenomenal average of 76.5. Three out of his five hundreds have come in games with no impact on the series scoreline. It all started with his maiden Test century against Australia, then came the 199 in Chennai against an England attack that was desperate to board the next plane home. Then at The Oval, he prospered against the England team that was 3-1 up and a long way shy from their best bowling performance.
The record will show three centuries, but in the context of the series all of them have been irrelevant. Even the brilliant 85 Rahul scored at Kandy against Sri Lanka last year came in the third match with India already two-nil up in the series.
In contrast, in the ‘live rubbers' Rahul has struggled with 1,199 runs at a paltry average of 30.74. All great players of the current and past era had the knack of scoring the runs when it matters the most. Perhaps it is time Rahul has a long conversation with Virat Kohli about handling mental pressure. For the first four Test matches, he looked so hesitant, as if he is hanging on to his spot for dear life. Some might struggle with the technical side, but the way Rahul batted on the fifth day, a lot of his issues seemed mental.
In the fifth match, he seemed to be relaxed and played with great freedom. It was as if the burden of expectations had been lifted. At the start of both innings, he played the ball in anger and the positive intent seemed to make his footwork more assured. This was the innings India needed from their opener in the first or the second Test match.
Yes, the pitch had lost its zing on the fifth day, but the period against the new ball was still tough to bat against. It must be frustrating for Rahul that since his debut in 2014, he can score briskly and look so confident, but is also unstable and insecure in matches at beginning of the series.
Maybe it will come from experience, but how long can Rahul keep raising the expectations of the nation and then fail to deliver when the team needs runs from him. He is far too good of a player to keep making the same mistakes. Rahul had been exposed by the incoming delivery throughout the series. The right-hander has fallen prey to the inswinger in six of his 10 innings. It suggests that once an opposition works Rahul out, he struggles to find a solution.
The challenge for Rahul is to play in such a proactive manner at the start of the series and put the opposition under pressure. He would have learned from his stint in international cricket that he needs to be upbeat before each innings and score the tough runs. He doesn't want to be the man to be known as the ‘dead rubber' specialist.
Rahul's career is still relatively young and there is competition brewing in India. Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal are waiting for opportunities, and while Rahul might be scoring the odd hundred, there may be a time the selectors start looking at his numbers through the magnifying glass and realise that his numbers need to improve in the decisive games. No longer can he save such stunning performances when the series has been done and dusted.
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