KL Rahul: Waiting to begin again
KL Rahul has a vivid recollection of the day after Christmas in 2014. He may struggle to remember other notable dates from a career that has already spanned half-a-dozen years in international cricket, but it is almost impossible for one to forget the day they made their Test debut. Even if the debut was as forgettable as Rahul’s was.
In the interviews he has given to various publications, Rahul remembers the smallest details of that Boxing Day Test and its first morning in Melbourne - MS Dhoni handing him his Test cap; the long boundaries hampering his vision of his wicketkeeper-captain as he moved him about in the deep; the incredible capacity of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, holding over 90,000 spectators that first day; the loud and potty-mouthed fans in the stands by the boundary ropes.
“I went to the deep square leg boundary. Then one of the guys from the crowd said, ‘mate, what’s your name?’” Rahul once said in a bcci.tv video. “Because I was playing my first match they didn’t know who I was. I said ‘Rahul’ and they said hello and all… In ten seconds the whole section goes, ‘Rahul is a wanker, Rahul is a wanker’… It was an amazing, amazing experience.”
To earn that experience and his place in India’s touring squad of Australia, Rahul had scored 1,033 runs in the 2013/14 Ranji Trophy season for eventual champions Karnataka, with three hundreds (one of them in the final, where he was adjudged Man-of-the-Match) and three other scores in the nineties. All those runs had come as an opener, his natural position. In Melbourne, he would walk out to bat at No.6 at the very end of the third day - after fielding for a day-and-a-half as Australia piled on 530 runs and then waiting for another day-and-a-half as Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane scored centuries.
“I felt like I could dominate. That’s what I do back here in first-class cricket,” he said while detailing his debut to ESPNCricinfo. “I open the batting. By the time the spinner comes on, I am already settled, I know the wicket. I tried doing the same there, but I had no clue of the pace of the wicket, the line he (Nathan Lyon) was bowling.”
In just the seventh ball of his innings, the opener in a lower middle-order batsman’s clothing skipped out of the crease to “dominate” Lyon. The awkward and uppish flick arched straight towards the midwicket fielder, who dropped the catch. Rahul ran two runs instead of walking back to the dressing room, but the life he was given lasted less than sixty seconds. For, Rahul mistimed an expansive sweep the very next ball and the square-leg fielder circled under the top edge and ended his first essay for India. It lasted eight balls and three runs.
His second innings at the ‘G was even shorter - five balls, one run. Despite batting a lot closer to familiar territory at No.3, Rahul tried to pull a Mitchell Johnson ball from well outside off-stump, and the top-edge was snapped up at first slip. A debutant with a lesser reputation would’ve paid with his place in the next Test. For 22-year-old KL, the twin errors were put down to nerves and alacrity.
Dhoni’s retirement after the MCG Test cleared up a spot; opener Shikhar Dhawan being dropped for the Sydney Test by new leader Kohli cleared up two. The New Year’s break in between cleared up young Rahul’s mind. At the SCG, he walked out to bat as an opener in Dhawan’s place. “The only thing on my mind was to play one ball, relax, let that ball go,” he would later tell Cricinfo. “Play one more ball, let that ball go. I tried to do that for as long as possible.”
The nightmare soon passed, but the dream took many hours to build. After having batted a total of 18 minutes over two innings in Melbourne, Rahul spent six hours at the crease to get his maiden Test hundred - easily his slowest first-class hundred at that point. Off the 253rd ball he faced, he guided a Mitchell Starc delivery to the third man boundary and closed his eyes and turned his head to the skies, arms and lips spread wide in joy.
That ecstasy was seen often over the next three years. In just nine innings between Sydney 2015 and Jamaica 2016, Rahul struck three Test hundreds, all of them overseas. There was little he could do wrong during this phase, especially in 2016 - in Harare he became the only Indian to score a hundred on ODI debut and in Lauderhill, Florida, became only the third Indian to score hundreds in all three formats.
In 2017, when the Aussies came visiting for a four-Test series, Rahul scored six fifties in the seven innings India batted in, the half-century streak then spilling over into the tour of Sri Lanka. But as 2017 became 2018 - a year in which India would tour South Africa, England and Australia for Test cricket - the problems surfaced.
Rahul slipped down the order to No.3 from the last Test of the South Africa series to the first Test in England. When he returned to his opening position, he thumped a terrific hundred in the final Test at the Oval - just the confidence he needed in the lead up to the tour of the land of his debut, Australia.
It didn’t help. With just one double-digit score across four innings in Adelaide and Perth, Rahul was dropped for Mayank Agarwal, his closest friend in cricket. This was the Boxing Day Test of 2018 in Melbourne - a harsh circle of life.
Rahul featured sporadically in Test cricket in the first half of 2019 before being dropped altogether from the country’s red-ball squad - missing each of India’s Test assignments against South Africa, Bangladesh and the tour of New Zealand this year. After 16 months out in the cold, sunny Australia has presented Rahul with yet another clean slate.
It had to be Australia, where a 22-year-old boy once did what it took. Now a 28-year-old man awaits his turn to do it all over again.