World Cup 2019: KL Rahul rising, and playing perfect wingman to Rohit Sharma
Immediately before India’s semi-final game against New Zealand, KL Rahul hit a century as an opener to ensure that India don’t for a moment miss the loss of Shikhar Dhawan as the tournament progresses into its final week.Updated: Jul 08, 2019, 08:18 IST
There’s an easy circularity to KL Rahul’s maiden World Cup campaign. Immediately after India’s first warm-up game against New Zealand, Rahul struck a hundred at No.4 to ensure that India didn’t miss the plethora of middle-order options they left behind at home. And immediately before India’s semi-final game against New Zealand, Rahul hit a century as an opener to ensure that India don’t for a moment miss the loss of Shikhar Dhawan as the tournament progresses into its final week.
But scratch beneath the polished surface of this perfect circle and you will see the lumps and edges of what has been a month-and-something spell that has been as challenging for Rahul in international cricket as it has been rewarding.
That versatility to wheel up and down a batting order cannot be crafted over the space of one tournament, let alone in a World Cup with a gruelling format. But Rahul willed himself to make it happen, an effort that reveals itself in incredible numbers. He and Rohit Sharma now have three 100-plus stands at the top, making them the only pair—for any wicket—to notch as many in this World Cup.
There’s however a downside in being the partner of a batsman in a form as sublime as the one Sharma finds himself in; one tends to go unnoticed. So, despite the fact that Rahul had several starts and even two fifties before his maiden World Cup hundred on Saturday, he would face the same line of questioning in post-match press conferences and at mixed zones.
“Are you disappointed that you didn’t convert your start to a hundred?” “What’s it like batting in the shadow of Rohit?” “Has anyone in the team management spoken to you about pushing on after your fifty?” “Watching him from 22 yards away does it get tempting to bat like Rohit?” You get the idea.
Always Rahul would grit his teeth and try and answer with earnest. On ever wanting to bat like Rohit, he laughed. “You really need to be a fool if you get tempted to bat like him because he is just a different class. Rohit is from a different planet altogether when he gets going,” he said after Rohit’s fourth hundred this World Cup. “He makes it look really easy even when the wicket isn’t easy. So, I think just to bat with him takes the pressure off you.”
On the topic of converting starts he was more serious, understandably. “It’s important to convert starts, yes,” he said after his 77 runs against Bangladesh at Edgbaston, an innings that helped India put up their hitherto tallest opening stand of 180 runs across World Cups (that was broken by nine runs against Sri Lanka). “But with each innings I am learning and if I will follow the same process and if I keep learning from each innings and try to get better, I will get there eventually.”
He did, just in time for the biggest game of his young career—the semis at Old Trafford against Kane Williamson’s side, the only team India did not play against in the group stages due to a washout in Nottingham. And when they last played them, albeit in a warm-up at the Oval a week before the World Cup began, neither Rahul nor any of the other specialist batsmen from the Indian side got even a start and were bowled out for 179; a total that was rather easily chased down.
Drawing enormous confidence from this performance against a tuning-up India, NZ started the proper tournament with a bang—unbeaten in their first five games. But that streak stuttered against West Indies, who the Kiwis managed to narrowly beat only to go on to lose three consecutive matches in the lead up to the semi-finals.
So, what then is the trick to defeating New Zealand? Pore through their scorecards and numbers and a pattern becomes very evident. Not once in their first five matches did New Zealand’s bowling attack—led by the incredible Trent Boult—concede a 100-run stand for any wicket. Not once. And the first time they did, in their campaign’s sixth game against the Windies (Chris Gayle and Shimron Hetmyer for the third wicket), New Zealand struggled.
This struggle turned into Williamson’s first loss against Pakistan in the next game, thanks to Babar Azam and Haris Sohail’s 126-run partnership. Then, in the following match against Australia, Usman Khawaja and Alex Carey added 107 runs for the sixth wicket and NZ lost again. And the string of losses became a hat-trick when England’s Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy put on 123 runs for the opening wicket.
This then is New Zealand’s Achilles heel, which of course bodes well for India. For, Sharma and Rahul have made quite a habit of 100-run stands in this World Cup, even if Rahul’s contributions to these starts had flown well under the radar. That is until he raised his bat for the second time in the same innings against Sri Lanka on Saturday.