AUSTRALIA TOUR OF INDIA, 2023
KL Rahul: India’s middleman on the move
“Where will he bat” has always been the tougher question to answer about KL Rahul. And Indian cricket hasn’t answered it very well over the years. The ODI format, in particular, has been the most ambivalent, trailing him at every batting position from Nos. 1-6 in the last four years. For now though, five is where the fortune wheel has stopped at, and going by his 75 not out at the Wankhede Stadium, that’s where it will stay come the World Cup later this year.
Having someone walk in at 16/3 on a seaming deck and play a match-winning knock isn’t a luxury that India have enjoyed in recent times. Far too many times have they been undone by a bad day from their high-functioning top order. The circumstances in the first ODI in Mumbai were ripe for an encore when the presence of Rahul in the middle order, a plan long in the works for India, bore fruit.
For a change, India didn’t try to hit their way out of trouble but had someone in the middle who could hold fort when the opposition was on top and then morph to fluent when the wind changed direction. No wonder Rahul credited “normal cricketing shots” for his performance, something that hasn’t come easy to India lately. The flux of young batters coming into the system – the Prithvi Shaws, the Shubman Gills and the Ishan Kishans – have all had little to no List-A experience of batting in the middle order, so to expect them to step up under pressure when a far more experienced top-order hasn’t delivered is asking a bit much.
That’s what makes the presence of Rahul, 30, invaluable in that middle order. He has the soundness of technique, the experience of having been in the system and, more importantly, the will to bat where India needs him to.
Australia’s last tour of India, a three-match ODI series in 2020, is actually a great starting point to understand how India arrived at an answer to its middle order vacuum, and just how long-winded the path for Rahul has been. Take the first ODI of that series for example. Rahul arrived in Mumbai fresh from a hundred against the West Indies, crucially achieving the feat as an opener, but come the big series opener against Australia, he saw himself pushed down to No.3 to accommodate fit-again Shikhar Dhawan. Virat Kohli, then captain of the side, had to move down to allow Rahul to bat in the top order, and in turn faced tough questions after India slumped to a 10-wicket defeat. “People need not panic for just this one game,” Kohli said after the loss, “I think I am allowed to experiment a bit.”
Come the next game in Rajkot, Rahul batted at No.5 and scored 80 off 52, a knock Kohli called his “best at the international level”. This was the very game where he impressed with the gloves too, taking two catches and effecting a stumping while filling in for Rishabh Pant, who was off the field with concussion.
That Rahul was back opening the innings in the third ODI in Bengaluru tells you all that you need to know about his journey. Although this one time was as a last-minute replacement for Dhawan (who had injured his shoulder while fielding), there have been five other occasions since when Rahul has opened the innings. But all those instances came when he was the stand-in captain, leading the side in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the absence of Rohit Sharma. Once India were back in the familiar climes of the subcontinent, in conditions where the World Cup will be played, Rahul was trusted again with the responsibility of the middle order.
Truth be told, settling back at No.5 wasn’t the easiest for Rahul after a long injury layoff. He was removed as India’s white-ball vice-captain and faced increasing pressure from Ishan Kishan, another wicketkeeper-batter who along with his left-handedness also brought an ODI double hundred to the table. But a solid 64* off 103 against Sri Lanka on a lively deck in Kolkata helped Rahul double down on that middle order role.
“KL at five gives us the depth, gives us the confidence at the top of the order to go and bat freely,” Rohit would reiterate at the end of the game. Rahul, on the other hand, was just revelling in the slow-paced way of life in the middle order. “One thing I really enjoy is that you don’t have to rush back into batting,” he told Star Sports after that match-winning knock at the Eden Gardens. “You get time to put your feet up, have a nice cold shower, have a good meal and then relax and then see what’s happening before walking in. That’s the good thing about batting at No.5.”.
Rahul’s growth story is unconventional, agreed. Moving down the order isn’t the usual recipe for success in white-ball cricket. Especially in India, when you want to face the hard new ball, make use of the PowerPlay fielding restrictions and bat with a clearer head. But Rahul has flourished in a very contrasting ecosystem: starting against spin, timing the old ball and navigating the pressure of a close run-chase or of nailing the big hits in the final few overs.
Come 2023, Rahul has played the most number of games at No.5 and boasts the best average and strike-rate here among all the different positions he has batted at. Clearly, he is basking in the art of “building an innings” that he had so painstakingly tried to learn from watching videos of Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson. He now returns to Visakhapatnam, where he scored a century as an opener three years ago and helped India win a game. This time, he will be expected to do the same but in the middle order.