'I haven't chased anything with so much heart and passion' - KL Rahul on match-winning hundred
Just at the moment when all of England was celebrating Harry Kane's successful penalty in regulation time against Colombia, the Indian contingent at Old Trafford was celebrating a beautifully pulled six from KL Rahul. In the time it took for the referee in Moscow to clear the penalty area and allow Kane to take his spot-kick, Rahul had already hit three boundaries, leaving the usually unruffled Liam Plunkett spitting feathers.
Twenty runs had come off that Plunkett over. That final-ball six was matched with another effortless flick over deep square leg, leaving India's captain Virat Kohli fawning "wow, wow" in the dug-out. The body positioning, the balance, the finesse, the placement: in a format where batsmen often bare muscular vulgarity, Rahul was portraying graceful strokeplay, using a technique taught to Test aspirants.
The day had been already lit up by the resplendent strokeplay of Jos Buttler. But Rahul not only matched Buttler, he finished the job which the Englishman could not. Both men have a wide range of strokes, and can use their feet and the crease inventively. But if Buttler leaves you gasping with his daring and innovative strokeplay, Rahul arrests your attention with his drop-dead gorgeous strokes - like that fine, fine glide that he executed against Adil Rashid - too fine even for an already fine short third man. Or those cover drives underlined with the high elbow, a full face of the bat and a seamless followthrough.
The biggest asset that Rahul possesses, and which catapults him above all competition for a spot in India's top and middle-order in limited-overs cricket, is the intent. Yes, Kohli's critics might cringe at the word, but intent while batting in T20 and ODI cricket clears many roadblocks mentally.
In the first match on this trip, last week in Ireland, Rahul grimaced as a top-edge flew back to the bowler Kevin O'Brien after he had lined up a premeditated single into the leg side. Rahul had reached 70 by then with eight overs remaining, and knew he had missed out on an easy opportunity to get his second ton in T20Is.
On Tuesday, he accomplished that feat to emulate Rohit Sharma, the only other Indian to have twin T20I centuries. In the IPL, Rahul had seen the benefits of hitting the first ball of an over for a boundary. When Chris Jordan faltered with an outswinger that came out as an over-pitched delivery, Rahul whipped a fluent cover-driven six off only his third ball of the innings. In the early part of Moeen Ali's first two overs, Rahul reverse-swept the offspinner for two fours and then charged down the pitch to loft two sixes, on both occasions over long-off.
Two f-words best describe Rahul's brand of cricket: fearless and free-flowing. He had been promoted to the No. 3 position, usually reserved for Kohli or Suresh Raina, with the sole purpose of playing the aggressor role. Kohli, like England's captain Eoin Morgan, has been stressing the need for batsmen to perform flexible roles in the lead-up to the World Cup next year.
It is a smart move in that Rahul can play the No. 3 role or anywhere else in the middle order because he can accelerate from ball one unlike Rohit or even Kohli, both of whom can take a little while to settle. Kohli later suggested that Rahul had been given freedom to play his natural game, knowing that India had the "cushion" of experienced batsmen in the middle order to follow him.
It will be interesting to find out whether MS Dhoni played a role in this thought process. Mind you, Dhoni has utilised the same approach at Chennai Super Kings to promote the likes of Ambati Rayudu and Suresh Raina to the top order, allowing them to cut loose while he guarded the lower order. In 2011 World Cup, under Dhoni, India had three openers in Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir with Kohli at 4 and Raina doing the finisher's role with Dhoni.
The question before India started their limited-overs leg in England was how could Rahul fit into the teams? With his blazing innings in his maiden match in England, Rahul has put a full stop to the debate.
The century meant a lot to Rahul and his emotions poured out involuntarily. On 99 he had tapped David Willey behind square and ran for a single. Even before he completed the run he had raised his bat. At the other end, Kohli initially raised his palms wondering why Rahul had not turned back for the second run.
Rahul was lost dealing with his emotions. It was a release and relief after several months of frustration, missed opportunities of converting healthy starts, where he had crossed the 50-mark but missed out on reaching three figures.
Incidentally Rahul's last international century had come against England in the Chennai Test match in 2016. Since then, he has played 36 innings with 14 fifties until this Old Trafford century. Injuries kept him out of the reckoning in between whiles, further adding to his disappointment. In the same period, Kohli played 69 innings and cracked 15 centuries and 12 fifties.
Little wonder then, Rahul values every innings he plays now. In a conversation with teammate Dinesh Karthik, which was conducted for the BCCI website, he describes the competition to get into the Indian team as "madness". Rahul revealed each time he gets to play for India he plays as if it is his last match.
"This is very satisfying," Rahul told Karthik on his century in Manchester. "I have a few international hundreds, but this means the world to me. This is very special because the last international hundred I got was about two years ago. I've been getting fifties in the IPL and Test matches, been in and out of the one-day team. It's been a rough road in the last one, one-and-a-half years with injuries, going out. I haven't chased anything this much, with so much heart and passion, so this innings means the world to me."
By 'rough road', Rahul meant getting the 50s but not being able to convert them. "Being out of form is getting out in single-digits, but that wasn't happening. I was getting starts, I was batting well. Obviously a couple of injuries, going in and out of the team . . . not finding a spot after some time has always been tough. So to get that opportunity and deliver, to get that three-figure mark - I've always said that I've not been somebody who has chased numbers, but when I wasn't getting the three-figure mark, that's when I really realised how important three figures was."
Rahul acknowledged the success he had with Kings XI Punjab this IPL where he finished as the league's top batsman. Rahul said Kings XI had given him the role of being their main batsman who could play deep into the innings while doubling up as the demolition specialist. "I've been working towards this, even in the IPL, to stay through and bat the 20 overs. Stay not out and try to finish as many games for my team as I can."
Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo