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India vs England, 5th Test: KL Rahul and his season of transformation

At 187 for 2, with his score on 98, KL Rahul turned a Ben Stokes delivery over for a single. As a shy at the stumps from midwicket failed, Virat Kohli was the first to notice the ensuing overthrow. He sprinted the next two runs, jumped up in joy, fist bumped his partner mid-pitch, before giving him a big bear hug for his hundred. Yes, you read that right. A hyper-excited captain chuffed for a man he’s backed all season, despite yet another injury lay-off.

 India vs England, 5th Test: KL Rahul and his season of transformation

KL Rahul reacts after his dismissal on 199. AP

This series has been a long one, as five Test series tend to be, meaning there are both survivors and those that have fallen by the wayside at some point. Injuries are a common effect of these grinding schedules, and mid-series changes a regular feature.

After a spate of injuries to openers, including KL Rahul’s during the New Zealand series, Gautam Gambhir found himself playing Test cricket once again. Two Tests and 108 runs later, he found himself getting an obligatory “thank you” from his captain, along with an explanation for the management’s latest move – to pull the returning KL Rahul out of a Ranji fixture to fit him into the squad for the second Test.

“We had it pretty clear in our heads that KL is our number one choice along with Murali Vijay. He is fit at any stage, he comes back into the team and we are going to start with him. Be it pulling him out of a first-class game in between. It's within the rules and the regulations," the Indian captain said in Vizag.

Rahul is an excellent prospect, one who has scored runs by the bucketload across multiple seasons, but Kohli’s backing of his Royal Challengers Bangalore mate goes beyond all of that. He is having what is likely to be a transformative season, and his 199 on Sunday is only the latest proof of that. In a stop-start Test career spanning only 12 Tests, there has been as much frustration, as the seemingly boundless promise on view. There have been eight single-digit scores in 19 innings, four hundreds and a solitary fifty. Some of it is baffling, and will only even out over a longer time-frame. What’s more, he’s missed 12 of the 22 Tests India have played since his debut, mostly due to one injury or another that has sidelined him.

From the rest of his innings, though, the signs are ominous. After an IPL season where he finally realised his hitting potential, scoring at a strike rate of 146.49, accumulating 397 runs in 14 games as a surprise package at the top of RCB’s marauding top order, he has become India’s first centurion on ODI debut, apart from hammering T20 cricket’s second-fastest century against the West Indies.

All this is massive progress for a player considered a “Test specialist”, one who could not break free at will in the shorter formats. What he showed in Chennai, though, is how seamlessly he has been able to transfer that form and confidence to the game’s longest format. Among all players with over 200 runs this home season, Rahul astonishingly has the third highest strike-rate, ahead of the likes of Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. In fact, after IPL 2016, his strike-rate has gone up to 62.02, from the previous figure of 47.49.

He’s unafraid to step down the track and hit those big sixes, knowing fully well that the boundaries are only as long as they were when he lit up these same venues during the IPL season. It shows a significant shift in mindset, that of a batter who’s benefitting from the confidence shown on him by his team management.

Despite all of this, Rahul’s challenge ahead is one of consistency. As Nasser Hussain perfectly encapsulated on air, “his Test career has been feast or famine” so far. With all that early innings shakiness and a knack of not being able to see out the new ball, he would dearly hope for a more “normal” run, with lesser troughs and more solid assurance for his side at the top. It need neither be feast nor famine. A series of balanced, fulfilling meals would do just fine, if only to whet the appetite for daddy hundreds like this.

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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2016 09:04:40 IST