The curious case of KL Rahul | Crickit

The curious case of KL Rahul

May 15, 2024 08:10 PM IST

It’s safe to say that the 31-year-old's T20 and IPL career has enthralled and frustrated observers in equal measure

Smiles were exchanged as the television cameras panned to Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) owner Sanjiv Goenka and skipper KL Rahul engaging in a seemingly more cordial conversation on the outfield after a defeat to Delhi Capitals on Tuesday. But nobody was being deceived – this seemed like an effort to downplay the backlash following their defeat to Sunrisers Hyderabad when visuals of Rahul getting a dressing-down by the team owner circulated on social media.

KL Rahul walks back to the pavilion after his dismissal during the Indian Premier League (IPL) match between Delhi Capitals and Lucknow Super Giants.(AFP)
KL Rahul walks back to the pavilion after his dismissal during the Indian Premier League (IPL) match between Delhi Capitals and Lucknow Super Giants.(AFP)

If there was a silver lining for Rahul from this unedifying episode, it was his getting a hint of sympathy from the public. Earlier that evening in Hyderabad, he had been vilified too, for making 29 off 33 balls in a total of 165/4 that was chased down by Sunrisers in 9.4 overs with all ten wickets intact.

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Opinions about Rahul, 31, often oscillate between good and bad. Some may think he is a multi-faceted cricketer who can fulfil many roles and responsibilities while others may feel he is a tad fortunate to have played 50 Tests, 75 ODIs and 72 T20Is.

Let’s keep the debate on his Test and ODI numbers for another day, but it’s safe to say that his T20 and IPL career has enthralled and frustrated observers in equal measure. Enthralled because he is one of only two batters – the other is Virat Kohli – to have scored 600-plus runs in an IPL season on four occasions. He held the record for the fastest IPL fifty (off 14 balls) for five seasons until Yashasvi Jaiswal bettered it with a 13-ball half-century in 2023. He also has four IPL centuries to his name.

It’s also the reason that he can frustrate. Despite having the game to change gears and lay into attacks with a wide range of shots, his strike rate has mostly languished in the 130s for the past six IPL seasons. At a time when the T20 game is evolving at a rapid pace towards more sixes and higher totals, Rahul’s approach is perhaps akin to someone still using a BlackBerry.

That he has another gear isn’t in doubt: in 2018, his 659 runs in 14 matches came at a strike rate of 158.41 after all. But where Rahul has let himself down is in not doing this more consistently. His T20I numbers for India are similarly confounding. Though he has very acceptable overall returns – 2265 runs at a strike rate of 139.12 (average 37.75) – a closer look has provided a sense that he doesn’t quite turn up in key moments. One example is the last T20 World Cup for India when six games produced only 128 runs at an average of 21.33 and a strike rate of 120.75.

He hasn’t played a T20I since. And yet when there was discussion on the squad for this year’s T20 World Cup in the United States and West Indies, Rahul was in the fray as a wicketkeeper-batter.

“KL is a terrific player. We were looking at someone who bats in the middle. At the moment, he is batting at the top,” chief selector Ajit Agarkar said of Rahul’s eventual omission.

What Rahul needed to make a stronger case perhaps was to let loose and attack from ball one. But 465 runs at a strike rate of 136.36 suggests that he hasn’t managed to shed his inhibitions yet again. LSG assistant coach Lance Klusener came to Rahul’s defence before their game against Delhi Capitals.

“KL has got his own unique style which has made him a fantastic player and respected around the world. I think this IPL has been exceptionally tough for him because we've kept losing wickets at stages, which hasn't allowed him to kick on where he likes. He probably feels like he's always having to rebuild. I think as a batting unit around KL, we haven't been as good as we should,” Klusener said.

To add to that, LSG head coach Justin Langer argued that the pitches in Lucknow, which is where Rahul has played most of his matches, haven’t been as batter-friendly as some of the other venues in this competition. A total of 200 has been breached only once in seven games in Lucknow this year.

“The Lucknow wicket has been a real contest between bat and ball, whereas a lot of this tournament has been very one-sided towards the bat. We haven't capitalised in our Powerplays like some of the other teams have, but I would probably argue that the Lucknow wicket has been more competitive,” Langer said on Tuesday.

All of this may be sound reasoning, but with a mega auction in store ahead of next season, it’s hard to see Rahul’s association with Lucknow continuing given what has transpired over the past week. Just as important as heading to a new franchise, however, could be a new outlook with the bat in a T20 career that's been something of an enigma.

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