World Cup: How KL Rahul has become the hub around which Team India revolves
KL Rahul celebrates his century during the World Cup match between India and Netherlands at M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru on November 12 | PTI

World Cup: How KL Rahul has become the hub around which Team India revolves

The twin responsibilities of wicketkeeping and slotting in in the middle order trigger a freedom for Rahul that was missing as an opener in the other formats

An extraordinarily trying four months, followed by an exceptionally fulfilling two months. That’s been the story of 2023 for KL Rahul, India’s 50-over wicketkeeper-batsman.

Since December last year and India’s tour of Bangladesh, Rahul was earmarked as the man to don the big gloves at the World Cup, a decision firmed up after Rishabh Pant’s terrible road accident right towards the end of the year. It’s a role Rahul grew comfortable in, the twin responsibilities of ’keeping and slotting in in the middle order triggering the refreshing freedom that was missing as an opener in the other two formats and which finally ushered him out of the national team.

In 50-over cricket, Rahul is in his element. He works incessantly and untiringly on his wicketkeeping as well as his batting in the middle stages of an innings, when he can either be called on to stabilise, consolidate or accelerate, depending on how the top four have gone. At No. 5, he is in a position to react rather than be proactive, a luxury he revels in.

A few uncertain months

Rahul seemed at home in the ODI series in India in January and March against Sri Lanka and Australia, respectively, when an untimely thigh injury while leading Lucknow Super Giants in the IPL in May threw a spanner in the works. Rahul had less than five months in which to recover from surgery, and regain fitness and batting touch, before the World Cup. The timeline was tight but India were willing to wait till the proverbial 11th hour because that’s how much they value Rahul the ODI all-rounder.

Through hours of hard toil and the necessary slices of luck, Rahul was deemed good to go for the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka in August-September when, just before the team’s departure, he picked up a groin injury that delayed his comeback. Rahul missed the two preliminary games against Pakistan and Nepal in Pallekele and Ishan Kishan jumped at the windfall, making a supreme 82 against Pakistan under pressure while batting at No. 5 for the first time in his fledgling career.

Rahul rejoined the Indian team for the Super Fours in Colombo but had to bide his time because Kishan’s batting and keeping credentials couldn’t be overlooked. Then, minutes before the toss ahead of India’s Super Four opener against Pakistan, Shreyas Iyer — returning from back surgery — contracted spasms and was ruled out. Enter Rahul, maybe through the back door, but enter he did. And how!

Back, for good

With just a few minutes’ notice but a platform of 123 when he joined Virat Kohli, Rahul batted like a man possessed. Not many can overshadow Kohli in full cry but Rahul managed that effortlessly, his contribution in an unbroken third-wicket stand of 233 a sublime unbeaten 111. The faith had been vindicated; Rahul was back, for good.

Since that century, Rahul has stacked up a remarkable run of scores that underline his consistency — 39, 19, 58*, 52, 26, 97*, 19*, 34*, 27, 39, 21, 8 and 102. The only single-digit score was in Kolkata against South Africa when he was looking to accelerate with few deliveries left in the innings.

At the World Cup, Rahul has been excellent with the gloves and exceptional with the bat. He walked into a crisis in the opener against Australia in Chennai, India three wickets down for two runs chasing 200 for victory. Kohli, with whom he shares an excellent understanding, was at the other end, and the two mates started the rescue act, admittedly with a bit of fortune — Kohli was shelled by Mitchell Marsh when 12. Had the catch been taken, India would have been 20 for four; instead, that lifeline was the cue for the start of an unhurried, unfussed 165-run alliance that sealed the deal and formed the bedrock of India’s six-wicket triumph.

Rahul’s first reaction on hitting the winning stroke — a six off Pat Cummins — at Chepauk was disappointment. He was aiming for a four that would have taken him to 95, India to within one of the target and him to within a six of three figures. It wasn’t to be on October 8, but the cricketing gods had other plans, helping him get to his century on November 12 at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, where he cut his teeth as a cricketer.

Fireworks on Deepavali

His comrade-in-arms on Sunday was the man whose late pull-out in Colombo had given Rahul a second chance. Iyer and Rahul caned Netherlands to all corners of the park while putting on 208 of the very best, the two right-handers competing for grace, elegance, style, impact and effect in front of a holiday crowd that relished the fireworks in the middle on Deepavali. Tall and wiry and all sinewy style, Rahul can pack a punch when he decides to let loose, especially on the leg-side. He smote some of the biggest sixes on a day of several massive blows, hurtling to his century in just 62 deliveries without appearing to hit a ball in anger.

Rahul’s experience, his situational awareness and his temperament are massive assets for Rohit Sharma, as is his wicketkeeping. He has moved brilliantly behind the sticks, never out of step, and his work down the legside has been of the highest order. He is no longer a part-time stumper but even for a specialist, his skillsets are impeccable. A tall man, he gets up and down effortlessly and as fielding coach T Dilip acknowledged, his lateral movement has been second to none.

“It’s been truly amazing wicketkeeping,” Dilip gushed. “He came off a long layoff and an injury, so that was a challenge, but he came up really well. We identified a couple of areas (of Rahul’s keeping) that we worked on. When we start having a discussion and he believes that (the message), it’s a matter of a couple of sessions and he adapts to it.”

Rahul’s support to spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja has been exemplary. It’s standing up to the stumps, especially in the subcontinent, that tests the mettle of the wicketkeeper the most, and Rahul has passed that test unequivocally. With 347 runs, 11 catches and one stumping, Rahul has become the hub around which the team revolves, especially with Hardik Pandya departing the scene with an ankle injury. As the knockouts loom, Rahul will take it upon himself to reprise his heroics of the league phase, but quietly, allowing the glamour boys to hog the limelight.

Read More
Next Story