KL Rahul Test troubles expose muddled technique, mind
Since he played in the 2010 U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, KL Rahul was marked out as one for the longer format. He had the qualities—strong basics, patience and a game based on not playing false strokes.
It was felt coping with the pressure of scoring quickly in shorter formats will be his challenge. His early struggle in IPL was thus in tune with the initial assessments.
In his first six Tests, all away from home, there were three hundreds. Then there was a phase in 2017 when he got seven half-centuries in a row.
Opening partners came and went, but Rahul was steady. Only injuries kept him out.
Then, something clicked for him in Royal Challengers Bangalore. He toyed with bowlers at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, playing exhilarating cameos in the 2016 IPL season. Suddenly, sixes were flowing off his blade—16 came apart from 37 fours—as he scored at a strike rate of 146.49 that season.
It’s an ego thing among current players—they don’t want to be branded “stroke-less” Test cricketers. They want to be hailed as power-hitters. Rahul had joined the band of T20 stars.
IPL heroics won him T20 and ODI debuts, and he was hitting international bowlers out of the park. He was now a multi-dimensional player.
However, since the second cycle of overseas Test series began, with South Africa in January 2018, he has been a shadow of his earlier self. And he is yet to find his way back.
The Sabina Park Test was an example of how things have gone awry. Three years ago, he had smashed 158 at the venue to take India to 500. Last week, he was out for 13 and six. It made for painful watching—six runs came off 63 balls. It was a sure shot indicator that things were messed up, in terms of technique and in the mind.
Rahul has always been a busy player; even when he is subdued, his strike rate is around 45 to 50. Here it was less than 10. In Tests, he seems to be confused whether to attack or play the waiting game.
In 15 Tests since January 2018, he has had little to show. There has been one hundred, a desperate 149 at the Oval in a losing cause. Apart from that, one half-century came against Afghanistan.
Against West Indies, he had scores of 44, 38, 13 and six. Overall, in 36 Tests, he averages 34.59 from an aggregate of 2006. In the last 15 Tests though, he averages 22.23.
Curiously, all’s well with his short-format game. He was a star in 2019 IPL and was consistent at the World Cup, scoring 361 runs at an average of 45 plus. He has looked lost when it comes to making adjustments in Tests.
There’s concern over the manner of his dismissals. He is falling to nothing shots when set. He is finding different ways to get out. In the final innings of the West Indies tour, he tried to control the bounce and cover for the movement with the bottom hand, making a strange arc while bringing the bat down on the ball. It went against the basic rule of defending with a soft bottom hand.
Former India opener Chetan Chauhan blames it on T20. “I am fine if you get out early. But if you get out on 20, 30, 40 then your capacity and temperament is questionable.
“I saw Rahul going outside the off-stump and sweeping (in the first Test). You can’t do that. It’s a T20 shot.
“Due to the T20 effect, current batsmen are tempted to play on the rise and across the line without coming in line of the ball. On flat wickets you can connect, but on good wickets you cannot. The feet movement is not there; either go fully forward or fully back.”
ROHIT IN FRAY
With Rohit Sharma breathing down the neck, competition for places is intense and Rahul looks vulnerable. It is difficult to keep a batsman out after scoring five hundreds in any tournament, leave alone the World Cup. Sharma’s competition for a place was mainly with Hanuma Vihari and Rahul. Vihari has established himself as a more than good first-class batsman.
Sharma was only seen as a middle-order option. But post-West Indies, if he has to make a comeback, the only option is as an opener. That makes it a straight contest with Rahul.
In Australia, Sharma played only two Tests, and scored an unbeaten 63 in the victory in Melbourne, but their roles had not clashed till now.
For the selectors, there’s a precedence in Virender Sehwag’s success. The only doubt is whether Sharma can tackle the moving ball. Sehwag proved a massive success despite minimum foot movement.
Chauhan wants the selectors to back Rahul. “Opening is the most difficult task in batting. We’ve to persist with the openers, they should be given time to settle down. We must persist with Rahul. He has to play more Ranji games, score big hundreds to find rhythm, how to change the game immediately (from ODI to Test).”