Bengaluru: In the run-up to ODI World Cup, K L Rahul was the pet troll of social media rabble-rousers.
An often-fragile fitness, a propensity to start slow in T20s etc made him an easy target of the troll gangs.
For many, his failure was pre-destined but his contribution to India’s semifinal entry, in front and behind the stumps, in the showpiece has transformed the narrative around him.
While coming at No 5, Rahul’s role as a batsman is not easy – he either has very few overs to make an impact after a top-order mayhem or he has to consolidate after a top-order malfunction.
The Bengaluru man had to do both the jobs in the World Cup and excelled in them too, bringing in that much-needed stability in the middle-order.
It is all the more important because India no longer have the luxury of all-rounder Hardik Pandya coming in at No. 6.
Here are some samples of Rahul’s work. At Chennai against Australia, Rahul came to the crease when India were two for three after the departure of Ishan Kishan, Rohit Sharma and Shreyas Iyer.
He repaired the tattered innings in the company of Virat Kohli (85) while making an unbeaten 97 for himself off 115 balls.
He faced a similar situation against England at Lucknow while coming in at 40 for three and stabilised the innings while scoring 39 off 58 balls and shared a 91-run partnership with captain Rohit Sharma.
Rahul was left with the job of steering the ship to the port against Bangladesh after the top-order fired in unison while chasing 257, and he remained unbeaten on 34.
The match against the Netherlands on Sunday, perhaps, was the first time Rahul got a chance to express himself without any riders attached.
He exploited it brilliantly, hammering a 64-ball 102 to T-bone Netherlands, a knock laced with shots more glittering than Diwali fireworks. Check that swat-flick six off pacer Paul van Meekeren.
Of course, the Dutch attack was limited and the pitch at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was not the toughest one around, but the alacrity Rahul showed to seize an opportunity in front of him was delightful.
He now has 347 runs averaging 69.40 and at a strike-rate of 93.53, and that is quite precious for his position.
Former Pakistan all-rounder Shoaib Malik, himself familiar with the challenges of batting in the middle-order, summed up the significance of Rahul’s presence at No. 5.
‘If India loses two or three wickets early, he is someone who can play according to the situation. He can finish the match, can improvise, and can play with a good strike-rate. He is good against spinners as well as the pacers. He picks the gaps and plays the field,’ said Malik.
Samuel Jayaraj, Rahul’s childhood coach, is not one bit surprised.
‘Everyone knows his skill level as a batsman. But what often people do not see is his mental clarity. Throw him into any situation, he can tackle it. He has been that way from his formative days.
‘It does not matter for him – where he bats, whom he bats with, the opposition, all he sees is situations. He reacts to them nicely and that mindset makes him such a dangerous player. I can tell you the team will not lose a match until Rahul is out there,’ said Jayaraj.
It makes total sense when one checks this piece of astounding stat. In the long history of ODIs, Rahul is among only four batsmen who have scored more than 1000 runs while playing at No.5 and No. 4 at an over-50 average.
He now has 1635 runs jointly in those two slots averaging 56.37 and striking at 94.18. Other three batters in this list are: AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli, and Rassie van der Dussen. It is a fine club to have a membership too!
Along with his batting, the team management might be feeling chuffed with the way Rahul kept wickets in this tournament.
He has seldom made a wrong move behind the stumps, always in position to grab an offering. When Kohli came to bowl against Netherlands, it seemed Rohit’s ploy to give a break to his frontline bowlers.
But Rahul’s presence of mind gifted Kohli an ODI wicket after nine years. Dutch skipper Scott Edwards, himself a stumper, tried to glide a delivery on his legs behind the keeper for a possible single.
But Rahul sniffed that move and he was in place for collection even before Edwards’ bat met the ball.
India’s fielding coach T Dilip was satisfied to see Rahul’s efforts behind the stumps, while delving deep into it.
‘It’s been truly amazing wicket keeping he’s been doing. He came from a long injury layoff and that was a really challenging factor as to how he would keep up the wicket-keeping skill.
‘But I’m quite happy the way he is moving laterally. And for his height, you can see that the low catches which he has been taking (leaning) forward are outstanding,” said Dilip.
It has shown in his numbers too. From nine matches, Rahul now has 12 dismissals – 11 catches and 1 stumping – and he is third on the chart behind Quinton de Kock (19) and Edwards (15).
India head coach Rahul Dravid was quite assertive when he said not to judge middle-over batsmen through sheer numbers.
But Dravid will not be complaining either that Rahul has numbers to show.
(Published 13 November 2023, 10:47 IST)