Into the heart of a horror debut
At the final drinks break on the third day of the Boxing Day Test of 2014 in Melbourne, KL Rahul got up from his chair on the players' balcony, strapped on his helmet and walked out to the middle. A long walk, his first walk as a Test batsman, through the crowd. A memorable walk. "I don't think I will ever forget what I felt with each step," he said. The rest he wanted to remember but he can't do so clearly. These could well have been his only memories of Test cricket.
Rahul had been padded up for four hours already, not counting the breaks, in which he removed the pads. He had seen Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane counterattack in a 262-run partnership. He had seen both of them dropped once each, but despite all the coffee he had had to stay ready and focused, he didn't get excited because they were both flat offerings. Rahane was dropped by the bowler, Nathan Lyon, Kohli by Shane Watson at first slip when Brad Haddin dived in front of him.
On the first day of the Test, Rahul had seen 91,112 spectators give fellow debutant, the Queenslander Joe Burns, a hearty welcome out into the middle. The first confident shot Burns played brought the roof off the stadium. It was the day after Christmas, and Bill Lawry was on air when Burns push-drove through cover for three. Life was full of goodness. Rahul couldn't listen to Lawry, but he saw and heard the MCG. "It must have felt great to debut in your own country, in front of your own crowd," he said. "For me it was different. I knew I wouldn't get applauded by the Aussie crowd."
Three days prior, Rahul had begun to sense he could be making this debut because he got to bat more in the nets than he had in Adelaide and in Brisbane. India had lost both those Tests. In both those Tests Rohit Sharma had got in and found a way to gift his wicket away. Two days before the Test, Rahul was told to stay prepared for the debut, but that he would have to bat anywhere in the order. He did eventually replace Rohit.
On the third day of the Test, Rahul sat on the balcony, waiting for his turn, watching his team-mates get stuck into Mitchell Johnson and friends at possibly the grandest stage of them all, a Boxing Day Test with 63,873 in attendance. This was new to him. He is a first-class opener. He is not used to sitting there and waiting for his turn. Four hours can be a long wait. He drank all the coffee. He stayed alert, and then his turn came, just before the final hour of the day, when Rahane - on 147 - swept down the wrong line and was trapped lbw.
"I was eager to go out there and bat," Rahul said. "From the time I put on the pads I wanted to go out and bat. Then we had that big partnership, which was very important for the team. We had lost a couple of quick wickets. Virat and Ajinkya batted beautifully. I sat there and enjoyed it. Every over they were getting runs with ease, they were dominating the bowlers. Johnson bowling short and being pulled, and Lyon getting hit over mid-off and long-on. But I am not used to sitting out for so long."
Rahul was excited - as anybody, let alone a 22-year-old, would be. "I was so happy, man," he said of the debut. "I was like, 'You don't even dream of things like this. At the age of 22 you get to debut for your country, you go abroad and play in Australia, one of the biggest stadiums in the world.' So much history at MCG. Have watched so much cricket on TV, and you walk out there. Trust me it is a long walk when you are debuting. Walk through the crowd, and the crowd is always is in your face, saying negative things."
The thing about the MCG is, you can never tell from outside how intimidating an experience it can be. Even when the G is empty, if you walk out to the middle and just look up and imagine people there, you feel like an ant. To perform in front of more than 60,000 who have been looking forward to this week the whole year can be terrifying. Rahul wanted to be positive, that's what he remembered. He saw Lyon bowling. Back home in the Ranji Trophy he is used to scoring freely against spinners. He was looking for one confident stroke to get his innings going, to feel he was not out of place, and he thought Lyon was the man to do it against. After all, he had taken an easy single around the corner first ball off Lyon to get off the mark.
"I felt like I could dominate," Rahul said. "That's what I do back here in first-class cricket. That's the thing. I open the batting. By the time the spinner comes on, I am already settled, I know the wicket. I tried doing the same there, but I had no clue of the pace of the wicket, the bounce of the wicket, the line he was bowling. And being the first game, I wanted to get that first boundary and feel good. That's what even Virat told me. 'If you feel like you can take him on, take him on. Don't shy away or think too much.' That's what I did."
So after three defensive shots in the 110th over, Rahul went to "take him on". He jumped out of the crease, was nowhere near the pitch of the ball, ended up dragging the loft to the leg side, his back leg in the air as he did, and he was horribly out of position. Only to watch Peter Siddle drop it. And yet he went for a big slog-sweep next ball, and this time the top edge was taken. Only 12 minutes into the innings, he had played two suicidal shots and was now walking back to where he had waited for four hours with his pads on. Through the crowd again. This time feeling those judging eyes.
What was it, though? Was he anxious to get just one confident shot, a boundary, in to convince himself he belonged out there? "Not belong. Not Test cricket. Anywhere. Even when you are playing a first-class game, so important to get that first boundary," Rahul said. " That's what my plan was. But I failed miserably."
The beauty of Test cricket is a second chance. You can have a bad day, a bad session, a bad 12 minutes, but in theory you can come back. And in the second innings, just like MS Dhoni had done with Cheteshwar Pujara on debut, Rahul was asked to bat at No. 3, closer to his natural position. And he didn't have wait much at all. He was in in the second over, walking down that staircase again, and past Shikhar Dhawan, who had not long ago sizzled with 187 on debut but was now struggling to keep his place in the side.
This was the final day, and India had been batted out of the game. Set 384 in 70 overs, there was no way India could keep the series alive. They had to now fight for a draw. There was a bit of chirp as Rahul walked in, as you would expect for someone who had shown nerves in his first innings. The first three balls, from Josh Hazlewood, Rahul kept out without incident and even scored a single. Then came Mitchell Johnson.
The first ball. Short of a length, at the stumps, behind the line, defended, no problem. Now Johnson brought the midwicket in. Rahul saw runs. He saw a boundary there. He told himself he was going to pull over that man if the ball was short. Mistake. "It was the angle," Rahul said. In India we don't have left-arm medium-pacers going across you at that pace, and the bounce is different. I should have given myself more time."
Another top edge. This time Rahul lasted six minutes, five balls and one run. While those watching jumped to conclusions, up in the press box Tom Moody, Rahul's coach at Sunrisers Hyderabad, shook his head and told anybody who would listen that this was not the real Rahul. The real Rahul averaged over 50 in first-class cricket, was known to be technically strong and even of temperament. He had surprised himself and the observers. He was experiencing the jump from first-class cricket to Test cricket. Where there is seemingly a lot of time yet things can happen too fast.
"I was playing to their pace," Rahul said. "Obviously as a bowling team you want to finish your overs quickly and especially against a new batsman. I realised I had to give myself time. Play a ball. Step away. Breathe. Get your focus back.
"I was confident when I went to Australia I was good enough to be at this level because I had been getting runs consistently. My chance was a well-deserved one. But, obviously, when you are playing international cricket, you tend to get doubts. When I went back to bat in the second innings, it was harder, after the things that were written and said about the kind of shots that I played. Quite honestly there were a few doubts."
Time. Time that he didn't have enough of in the middle. Time that was now crawling. Slow enough for all kinds of doubts to creep in. Two things happened that evening that helped Rahul out. MS Dhoni shocked everyone by retiring. Dhoni, with whom Rahul spent a lot of time chatting as the two sat out the first Test of the series. Dhoni, the last link between the generation of Rahul and the legends Tendulkar and Dravid. Dhoni, part of whose legacy it should be that minutes before he informed the unsuspecting world of his retirement he pleaded for Rahul to be given time, asked people to not judge him based on one game. It just let Rahul forget about his own misery a little.
More importantly, he had Dhawan and M Vijay sit him down for a meeting. They didn't need to. Especially Dhawan didn't. Dhawan himself was going through a rut. Barely a week after a player had told Hindustan Times that Kohli doubted the genuineness of an injury Dhawan suffered minutes before the start of a day's play in Brisbane. Dhawan later had a surgery for that injury as he sat out the Sydney Test. At this point, though, Rahul, the third opener in the squad, was a direct threat to his place.
"That's what I respect about Shikhar," Rahul said. "Even though he was going through a bad patch, they were there for me. They knew I would go back and be miserable for the next week thinking about this game. Shikhar is also pretty new - 15-20 Tests? [13 at the time] He still knows the feeling of the first Test, though he scored a hundred in his first Test."
Vijay told Rahul to focus on breathing. On taking time to breathe. Play a ball, move away towards square leg, breathe. Don't focus on the batting, let the natural reflexes take care of the batting. A lot of failure is down to the times when the mind doesn't let you play your game. This is a rare window into the mind of a private but excellent Test match batsman. In the two years leading up to that Melbourne Test, Vijay had left alone more balls than anyone in Test cricket. He knew a thing or two about making the opposition play at his pace.
Everybody else, including Duncan Fletcher and Ravi Shastri, came up to Rahul and encouraged him. They told him of legends who had poor starts to their careers. They listed players who scored 10,000 runs but had ordinary first ten Tests. Moody told him Rome was not built in a day. Not one man told Rahul he had a technical flaw. Rahul went to Sydney less distraught, had a decent break and a New Year's, and when he came back to the nets he was told he would be opening at the SCG. He was relieved he got another chance, let alone to open in the innings.
There was a lot more purpose to Rahul's training. He knew what it was like in the middle. He began to imagine similar pressure in the nets. Every day he walked up to the wicket and visualised a full house getting stuck into him. Little did he know everybody, even the Australian fans, would begin to root for him. Before that, though, Rahul was to realise no magic had happened to turn things around for him.
Always a slip catcher for Karnataka, he dropped a sitter pretty early on in Sydney. The technique except for the last moment was perfect. He was relaxed in his stance, legs not too far apart, he got into a good position to take it calf high, but the hands didn't give as the ball arrived. Hard hands. It was a hot day, a flat pitch, the batsman, Chris Rogers, had scored fifties in his last four innings, and Rahul had dropped him in the first hour. He didn't look up for a long time. At the end of the over everybody changed ends, but Rahul moved slowly, wistfully. There were consolatory pats on the back for the bowler, Mohammed Shami. Rahul moved alone, walked up to the pitch, rubbed his sweaty palms against it, but when he looked up he had Ajinkya Rahane waiting for a little five.
Rahul said he doesn't remember but when the drinks arrived at the end of the hour, he sat alone on the drinks cart while others huddled and took refreshments. Dhawan, running drinks, offered him one. Later in the day, he was slow to move to a low offering at point, off the bowling of R Ashwin. When the second new ball was taken, he was not in the slips anymore.
"I was [nervous]. Maybe," Rahul said. "Not nervous, but I was like, 'Gosh, I have been training so hard, I have done everything right for the past one month, why is everything going wrong with me?'"
Reminded of the catch just before the end of Australia's innings, late on the second day, Rahul began smiling. Australia were nearing 550 when Burns - his first Test half-century under his belt - went for a six over long-on, but Rahul backtracked and took it overhead even as he tumbled. When he got up, it was perhaps the first time he had really smiled on a Test field, and the crowd sensed it. There was a bit of a connect with him. Crowds want their teams to win, and thus the opposition to lose, but they are not sadists. If Rahul didn't have the technique to face swing or seam just outside off, or bouncers, they wanted to see that bring him down. Not nerves.
Rahul walked out a calmer man. He was not going to go for that boundary he had said you need early in any innings. He was going to let it come to him. He had for company the man who is a master of letting it come to you, Vijay. This time, though, Vijay fell for a duck. Now we had Rahul and Rohit, batting at three in this match, trying to fight their anxieties out in the middle. Rohit went for a run that wasn't there, but Rahul was not even backing up at the non-striker's end. Luckily Pat Cummins, the substitute, threw at the wrong end. Rahul was still not entirely there.
Yet he was ready to wait. "The only thing on my mind was to play one ball, relax, let that ball go," Rahul says. "Come back, play one more ball, let that ball go. I tried to do that for as long as possible."
Towards the end of the day's play, amid scrutiny by short ball with a leg gully in place, Hazlewood bowled one that didn't quite come up. Rahul pulled it away for his first boundary in his Test career, the 35th ball of his third innings. That was the confident shot he had been looking for, but strangely he said that was not the time he felt he belonged. It was a leave the next morning.
"During that spell from Starc," Rahul said of the second morning, "he was bowling very fast. He was bowling thunderbolts at me. Bouncing me. Kept leaving them. I felt like I left him really well. There was one ball that took off, and I was in the air, and I still dropped my hands. I was getting right behind the ball when it was just short of a length. And when he pitched it up, I was there waiting for the ball. I wasn't getting caught on the back foot. That was the spell."
For a man so keen to get one boundary away in the last Test, he was not bothered that he went 34 balls in the morning with just one scoring shot. Starc was bowling at 150kph regularly, but Rahul now had time. And now he had the luck. On 46, he top-edged a skidding short ball from Shane Watson, but the ball went awfully close to the Spidercam cable, maybe even clicked it, and a distracted Steven Smith dropped him. Immediately he got a nice half-volley from Lyon to take him to a maiden Test fifty.
Starc came back for a spell before tea. Rahul pushed at the second ball of the last over before the break, and got an inside edge onto the pad. It fell safely away from short leg, but Kohli went up to Rahul for a chat. "You can get the hundred after tea also, there is no hurry," Kohli told Rahul, who said he doesn't like to know what score he is batting on. Now he looked up and saw he was on 98. The next ball was short of a length and wide. With no third man in place, Rahul opened the face of the bat and let out a scream as soon as the ball crossed gully.
"I didn't know how to react," he said. "I didn't know how to celebrate. I didn't know what just happened. I was just very happy I stuck to my plans and whatever we had discussed. I played 250 balls, which I normally don't have to play to get to a hundred."
Taking 253 balls, this was Rahul's slowest first-class century. A big lesson was learnt. "In Ranji Trophy you know when you will get runs," Rahul said. "You know the process to get to a hundred. Here it was different. And I have never played so badly in Ranji Trophy. I never knew what it took to come back from a bad innings. I had had bad times, injuries and all. Had got out from the first-class team. Had to work very hard on my fitness, score a lot of runs to get back into the Ranji Trophy team. I knew how to get back, but I didn't know how to fail in one game and play one more Test match five-six days later."
Rahul knew he could come back, but he still doesn't know what exactly went wrong in the first place. "It's surprising when I sit back and think about Australia, Melbourne comes to my mind more than Sydney," Rahul says. "The success was there [in Sydney], but I think about Melbourne Test match much more. I am trying to always see if I can go back to what exactly I was thinking when I played those shots. Or what I was trying to do. I don't get answers. I still don't know what I was thinking. Or what I was feeling at that moment.
"I know clearly what went through my mind when I walked from the pavilion to the wicket. But then once I faced the bowler, I don't know what the thought process in my mind was. Then I came back here and made it a point to always work on my mental aspect, trying to control my mind. If I sit back after a day's play, I know exactly the thought process when I played a bad shot or when I played a good shot. Which is what I can't do with Melbourne."
This is not as much about Rahul as it is about what a slightly nervous player can go through on a Test debut. That feeling of lack of time and air to breathe when you are finally doing what you have wanted to do all your life. And then you look back and wonder why it happened, and all you draw is a blur. Rahul is lucky he had a support system, a second chance and that slice of luck. Not many get all that.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo