India vs South Africa: KL Rahul has found the batting groove he had been looking for

Here’s a statistic to begin with. On Sunday, KL Rahul became the first Indian opener to score Test hundreds in England, South Africa, West Indies and Australia. The legendary Sunil Gavaskar might have been part of this statistic, if he had played against the Proteas before retirement.

It is a weird statistical equivalence. As long as Gavaskar played, India didn’t need to worry about one end. He stood tall against the world’s most fearsome fast bowlers and conquered the most difficult overseas conditions. The quest was always to find an ideal opening partner for him. In comparison, let alone holding one end together, Rahul’s career as Test opener thus far has been quite patchy, and that is a very kind description.

India's KL Rahul, right, raises his bet and a helmet after reaching a century during the Test Cricket match between South Africa India at Centurion Park in Pretoria, South Africa, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

KL Rahul remained unbeaten on 122 at close on Day 1 of the first Test against South Africa. AP

Sample this. Five months ago, Rahul was not even in contention to start the first Test against England. Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill had opened in the World Test Championship Final. Gill got injured, and Mayank Agarwal served as his replacement. Rahul, meanwhile, batted in the middle order in the warm-up against County Select XI. In fact, he was part of the Test squad solely by chance as India struggled for middle-order options.

With Cheteshwar Pujara- Ajinkya Rahane faltering, the intended plan was to use Rahul in the middle against England. It was only when Agarwal suffered a concussion that Rahul came back in opening contention. Fate presented yet another chance, and he hasn’t looked back since. In the ever-continuous merry-go-round that is India’s opening batsman, Rahul has managed to hold on, come back to the first-choice XI, and make the spot his own for the near foreseeable future. Credit to him where it is due.

In 2021, Rahul averages 54.62 in nine Test innings across England and South Africa. Compare this to the last 12 Test innings he played in 2018-19, he scored at a mere 17.42 against West Indies (home and away), and Australia (away). From 195 runs in seven Tests to 437 runs in four-and-a-quarter Tests two years later, it has been a marvellous turnaround, with a newfound balance to Rahul’s batting the hallmark of it all.

When he last exited the Test structure, this was a confused batsman, in the throes of poor form, struggling with poor shot selection and even poorer judgment. Recall the Australian tour in 2018 – he simply couldn’t leave enough deliveries, poking and playing at everything in the off-stump channel, whether it moved away or held its line. Rahul had been reduced to a walking wicket in the longer format. Why?

The answer is found in present-day cricket’s demands. Any batsman worth his salt, especially an Indian batsman, wants to play all three formats. Not everyone however can gain that elusive balance between white and red ball cricket, between IPL’s slam-bang and demanding overseas conditions. At least not as quickly as Virat Kohli – look how long it has taken Rohit Sharma to find his feet in Test cricket.

Rahul had arrived on the Test scene first, and his desire to excel in white-ball cricket made him lose that balance against the red ball. Is it any wonder that his poor form in the IPL (and subsequently ODIs and T20Is) coincided with his poor run in Test cricket? Rahul earns credit herein that he put his head down and worked out the flaws in his batting.

It helps when you know where the fault lies, and Rahul knew fully his struggles lay in the off-stump channel. Somehow he needed to find enough patience to curb his attacking pedigree and then the runs would come, whether batting at the top or in the middle order. This facet of improvement in his play was visible immediately on Test return at Nottingham – in the first innings he left 76 out of 214 deliveries faced. That was 10 short of the number of deliveries he had left alone in the entire five-Test series against England in 2018 – 86.

In that, Rahul took a leaf out of Rohit's book, or was it the other way around? It is hard to tell. For once though, India’s Test openers had found answers to their overseas problems, and the runs began flowing. Never mind the spate of injuries, and the continuing merry go-round, the latest opening pairing of Rahul and Mayank Agarwal has continued scoring runs.

On day one against South Africa then, Rahul left 186 out of 248 deliveries alone. Agarwal left 95 out of 123 deliveries alone. “To be honest, the plan was to be very disciplined. Only look to play balls on the stumps,” said Agarwal, after the duo had put on 117 for the opening wicket at Centurion. He scored 57 per cent of his runs on the leg-side. Rahul scored 43 per cent of his runs on the leg side.

That’s roughly 87 out of the 182 runs these two batsmen mustered on the day, and it explains why India had an upper hand on Boxing Day. If you watched the live telecast for much of the morning and afternoon sessions, you would have wondered out aloud if India were indeed playing South Africa.

Gone was the venom of Dale Steyn and Allan Donald, the sharp spells of Shaun Pollock and Vernon Philander, or even the penetrative acts of Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada from the last tour here in 2018. This was a listless Proteas’ attack, but it does not take away any credit from the Indian openers.

Precisely because South Africa did find their way back, and exposed India’s main weakness – that middle order. Pujara can’t seem to buy a run at the moment and Kohli is scoring thirties as easily as he used to score hundreds.

Rahul, though, stood like a rock, and dug India out of that troublesome passage, with Rahane fighting his own battle at the other end. Maybe the latter will provide us a redemption story on day two.

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Updated Date: December 27, 2021 09:26:37 IST

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