What KL Rahul tells us about the future of opening batsmanship
The IPL is now nine seasons old. Having spent a few seasons in an IPL dressing room, I was soon convinced that T20 was here to stay, and second - a not-so-healthy upshot - that the format would seriously affect the growth of Test openers and spinners in particular. This because no other players are forced to change their basic game to suit the demands of the shortest format as much as Test openers and spinners.
A Test opener is a skeptic by nature. He is trained to distrust the ball till it reaches him. Early signs can be misleading; the ball might appear to be traveling in a straight line after the bowler releases it, but it's wrong for the batsman to assume that it will follow the same path till it reaches him. The new ball could move very late in the air or off the pitch, and so openers are hardwired to view it with suspicion. They are also trained not to commit early to a shot because that can leave them in a tangle. They're told to wait till the ball gets to them and play close to the body. Reaching out with the hands is a temptation a Test opener must guard against.
But in T20 cricket, an opener's role is to set the tone. Go really hard in the first six overs, which is when scoring is considered to be easiest. If you can't find the gaps, go aerial. If you can't go down straight, trust the bounce and go across. Don't get too close to the ball, as that will block the bat-swing. Stay away from the ball and use the arms and hands to reach out and hit. A spell of 12 balls without a boundary in the first six overs is considered to be pushing the team back. Patience might be a virtue in Tests; it's a liability in T20.
The same is true for the spinners. Flight, dip, guile and deception aren't the most sought after virtues in the world of T20. Instead, the focus is on keeping the trajectory low and bowling it a little quicker to discourage the batsmen from using their feet. Bounce is revered in Tests, but the lack of it is a boon in T20. We have seen spinners go extremely roundarm (remember Ravindra Jadeja in the IPL?) to prevent the batsman from getting under the bounce.
It takes a long time to master the art of bowling long spells to plot and plan dismissals in Test cricket - a tactic that's alien to T20 bowlers who are used to bowling four overs across two or more spells. You can't practise crossing the English Channel by spending 30 minutes in the swimming pool everyday. T20 cricket has challenged the fundamentals of spin bowling.
The reason I think middle-order batsmen and fast bowlers haven't been forced to change their game is because T20 hasn't demanded they do anything that they weren't already doing. A middle-order batsman in a Test side, as in a T20 game, is allowed to rotate the strike and play along the ground before accelerating the scoring. He does the same in Tests and ODIs, albeit later in the innings. The only adjustment he is called on to make is to shift gears a little sooner. That's easier to do than being asked to move from riding a bicycle to driving a sports car, as spinners and opening batsmen are.
Similarly, fast bowlers aren't pressed to do anything radically different either. Make the new ball swing, change lengths and pace regularly, and find the blockhole on demand. It's challenging for sure but not a skill-altering demand.
After weighing in these factors, it is only fair to assume that the next generation of spinners and openers for the longer format might take a lot longer to come to the fore, or worse, not do so at all. After all, why would somebody invest in the skill set required to play the longest format given the huge rewards on offer in the shortest format? Unless you just can't cut it in T20, leaving you with no choice whatsoever.
While the likes of David Warner and R Ashwin excel equally in both formats, it's worth noting that both honed their skills as youngsters when playing the longer format was still the way up. Also, both are aberrations and not the norm. Increasingly, Test teams are forced to pick specialists in these two departments.
KL Rahul comes across as the first to challenge my hypothesis, and perhaps he provides an insight into how cricketers of the future will be.
Things that look improbable now, both physically and mentally, could become reality in the near future. And Rahul's early success across formats offers proof. He was only 16 when the IPL started, in 2008, and his first-class debut came two years later, which makes him a wonderful case study.
Rahul is happy leaving the ball that is only a few inches outside the off stump in Tests, and equally adept at flaying anything wide. He puts in a long stride to get close to the ball and then lean into drives in the longer format, but in T20 he doesn't mind staying away from a ball pitched on the same length, the better to allow his hands to go through. Like a true Test opener, he is skeptical at the beginning of a Test innings, but he doesn't mind going down on one knee to scoop the first ball he faces in the shortest format.
He got out pulling from outside off in his debut Test match and since then he hasn't played that stroke early in his innings. By his own admission, he really enjoys playing the pull and hook to anything that is short. To shelve a shot that's dear to you in one format and play it in other formats shows discipline and patience. That's a virtue the new-age opener wasn't mastering, or so I thought.
Most importantly, a fifty or an eighty isn't enough for Rahul. In fact, save for one occasion, he has scored a century every time he has passed 50 in Tests. He has shown that if you train the mind as much as you train the body, it's indeed possible to find a game that's suited to Test cricket without compromising on success in other formats.
Over on the bowling side, we are still struggling to find spinners for the longer format. I won't be surprised if some boards decide to keep young spinners away from T20 cricket till a certain age, for it is widely accepted that the shortest format is affecting the development of young spinners.
Perhaps I'm taking Rahul's initial success too seriously. After all, he could be just like Warner, an aberration. But his style of play is reassuring and has given me hope. Maybe he's the first of the new breed of Test openers. Amen to that thought.