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K.L. Rahul’s longest 22 yards

After a shoulder injury that kept him away from cricket for more than three months, K.L. Rahul eyes the Sri Lanka tour to make a comeback

K.L. Rahul playing a drive during the fourth Test match against Australia in Dharamsala earlier this year. Rahul played through the series despite sustaining an injury during the first Test in Pune. Photo: AFP
K.L. Rahul playing a drive during the fourth Test match against Australia in Dharamsala earlier this year. Rahul played through the series despite sustaining an injury during the first Test in Pune. Photo: AFP

Timing is key, especially in sports. Reach the ball too early and you’ll end up meeting it on the half volley and kicking it above the goalpost. A fraction of a second too late, and the ball will beat you to the goal line. And if you are an opening batsman in a cricket-crazy nation of 1.2 billion people, timing is either your best friend or your worst enemy; there is always someone knocking at the door to take your place in the team should you falter.

Consider this: A batsman has about half a second to respond to a ball coming at him at 140 kmph. Meet a swinging ball too early and you’ll end up edging it to the wicketkeeper. If you’re late in hitting a short ball, it will take the top edge and loop to a fielder.

So it is not surprising when K.L. Rahul arrives for our meeting just a minute before the appointment. However, he looks perturbed when he discovers that he isn’t the first one to arrive for the meeting.

“If I set myself a certain time, I make sure I am there a couple of minutes early," says the 25-year-old right-hand batsman, one of the most highly rated openers in this generation of Indian cricketers. It is a matter of discipline, he says, and it applies to interview times as well.

In the last 12 months, Rahul has averaged 55.52 from 12 Tests, 55 in six One Day Internationals (ODIs) and 56 in eight Twenty20 (T20) games. He scores big on the style quotient too. The Karnataka boy is known for changing hairdos, wears a beard and has eight tattoos.

“From a good player to a class player, that’s what K.L. Rahul has become in this Australia/India series," tweeted former batsman and cricket commentator Sanjay Manjrekar, after the series in March.

Sunil Gavaskar told NDTV during the India-England series in December : “K.L. Rahul, in his debut Test, didn’t score runs. There were just three or four deliveries that he shaped up against Mitchell Johnson—short, fast, aimed at his head. The way he got behind the line, that was an indication that temperament-wise he would be somebody to reckon with."

Rahul is currently recovering from shoulder surgery; he had suffered an injury during the Pune Test match against Australia in February. He missed the 2017 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the ICC Champions Trophy and is eyeing India’s tour of Sri Lanka later this month to make a comeback.

Discipline and timing are two key ingredients that make a solid batsman; the discipline to know which balls to leave, which shots not to play, and the gift of timing so you get maximum value from a shot. This is what makes players like Virat Kohli, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and David Boon a delight to watch.

“I knew there was no real history of people playing for the country from Mangaluru, so I knew that if I slacked with my discipline, I would never go forward in my career," says Rahul.

His first coach, Samuel Jayraj, fondly recalls how the lanky 10-year-old would arrive at 2.30pm for a nets session that was scheduled to begin an hour later. It showed not only commitment but an eagerness to do better.

Rahul was born in Bengaluru. His parents moved to Mangaluru when he was a child. His father, K.N. Lokesh, an academician, used to play cricket at the college level and one childhood memory Rahul fondly recounts is of him running around with a bat while his father bowled to him. It was a sport that all the men in his family, like millions of other families in the country, played together during vacations. And though Rahul took part in several other sports—football, basketball, badminton, volleyball and swimming—he found himself gravitating towards cricket.

His commitment to cricket took him away from home; he would spend months in the Karnataka State Cricket Association dormitories, honing his skills playing junior cricket. The move to Bengaluru happened when he was 17.

“There were a lot more distractions than Mangaluru," Rahul admits. “I wouldn’t mind missing half-hour of practice.... But if I hadn’t lived an 18-year-old boy’s life and made mistakes, I would have never been the person I am today. But Bengaluru also made me smarter and I started making better choices in life."

The choices he made reflected clearly in his game. He was a part of India’s Under-19 World Cup team in 2010 and made his first-class debut later that year. His breakout year, though, was 2013-14, when he made over 1,000 runs, including three centuries, for Karnataka in Ranji Trophy. He was also the man of the match in the final that Karnataka won.

He was picked by the Sunrisers Hyderabad IPL team for Rs1 crore in 2014. But the shorter format didn’t suit him well initially and he had two lacklustre seasons with Sunrisers. “It took me a lot of time, patience and effort to crack the shorter-format game," he says.

One of the key things that helped turn his performance around was the realization that he was complicating his game mentally. That, and the renewed focus on fitness.

Rahul’s 2016 IPL season was his breakthrough season with Royal Challengers Bangalore. He ended the season with 397 runs from 14 games at an average of 44.11.

But it is in the Test format that he has impressed the best cricketing minds. Since his debut against Australia at Melbourne in the Boxing Day Test in 2014, he has scored 1,200 runs in 17 matches at an average of 44.44. He has scored four centuries and seven half-centuries in the 28 innings he played—that is one 50-plus score every three innings.

The debut Test, though, was anything but memorable and Rahul still struggles to explain his shot selections in both the innings—an expansive sweep in the first innings and a thick top edge in the second, both very unlike him. By the time the second Test came around, the nerves had settled, and after a dropped catch, he went on to score his maiden Test century.

“You have to be patient with him," a Firstpost story quoted Ravi Shastri as saying, on how crucial Rahul’s role was in the Virat Kohli-led side during the Australia series. “I think Rahul has to understand his own game, which he is doing now. It’s when he tries to be somebody else that the problem starts...he’s got tremendous potential."

In the last year and a half though, Rahul has gone through what he describes “as the toughest part" of his international career. Injuries—hamstring, forearm and shoulder, the last requiring surgery—have all caused him to miss key games and tournaments. “It plays a lot on my mind, honestly," admits Rahul, the frustration obvious in his voice. Almost unconsciously, he touches his left shoulder, which is now out of the sling. “Every time I come back, it’s hard; it takes a couple of games for you to get that confidence back. Every time you go back on to the field, your mind keeps asking you if you are strong enough, what if it happens again…being in the rehab room is the worst thing for me, it’s a horrible feeling."

Rahul hurt his shoulder in the first Test against Australia in Pune, but played through the pain for the rest of the series. He was India’s second-highest run scorer in the series, brushing aside criticism about inconsistency.

“A hundred, and the next three-four innings would be single digits: that started playing on my mind. It was nothing to do with my technique or skill," he says. “After a couple of failures in the third or fourth innings, you have that extra passion; so I thought, ‘Why should I wait for like two-three failures till I get the fire in my heart?’ They (Australia) bring the best out of you and that helped me also. I cracked what it takes for me to be more consistent in Test cricket. It’s just the desire: how much and how badly you want it."

He seems to have sorted out the issues with his game. The next thing he probably wants as badly is an injury-free couple of years.

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