Returning from a shoulder injury, batsman KL Rahul is taking "nervous" steps forward as India prepare for their first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle next week. In his first competitive fixture in four months - a two-day tour game that ended in a draw - he smashed a 58-ball 54 - but felt there was still a way to go before feeling back to his best.
Rahul had injured his shoulder during the first Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in February. But he continued to play through pain and finished the series as the third-highest run-getter from either side with an aggregate of 393, including six fifties from seven innings. Since then, however, he has had to concentrate on rehabilitation work, forcing him to miss the IPL, the Champions Trophy and India's limited-overs tour to the West Indies.
Rahul, 25, has been bogged down by injuries in his brief international career, and this was the first one that required major surgery. "I am still very nervous," he told bcci.tv. "The body is still very unsure and it keeps holding me back every time. That's the biggest challenge coming back from injury.
"You know that you are physically fit and you have done everything that you can, worked really hard, you are feeling stronger, you are feeling fitter. But the mind always tells you what if it happens again, what if you have to go through the same grind for three months, what if your shoulder is not ready, what if you [have] come back early?
"There are a lot of questions, a lot of doubts and that's the biggest challenge and fight for me. I have been enjoying each day and I have been a person who takes it as it comes. If it happens again, it happens again. It's not in my control, I have done everything I can to get back. I tried to get my shoulder stronger, my body stronger. Once I put my helmet on, I forget all of these things. You see the ball, you see the ball pitched up to you and it has to be driven, you will drive. Your body is used to that for 15 years. Injured or not injured, your body just reacts. The fear is obviously there but I will fight it and I will overcome that."
Returning to fitness, Rahul said, was a tough exercise, but he was able to do so ahead of schedule because of a desire to be back representing India again. "Just wake up every morning and to do the same boring thing again and again is quite tiring and it starts to get to you," he conceded. "You start questioning yourself, asking yourself if you really want to do all these boring things. You chose a sport that is exciting and challenges you every day and here you are, waking up and doing boring things.
"But I woke up and there was something that pushed me to go to the gym, go to the physio, go through the painful process, needling and then pushing my shoulder. It was quite tough but it is part of a sportsman's life and part of our career. It's good that things like this happened to me early and I am hoping for an injury-free career going forward. The surgeon and the physio were really happy that I could come back in three months. They were expecting me to come back a lot later but I did pay a lot of attention to my rehab. I was very disciplined and very eager to get back to the team as soon as I could. I didn't want to miss out on any more matches".
The last time India went to Sri Lanka in 2015, Rahul's century in the second Test was sandwiched by meagre returns as he tallied only 126 runs in six innings. He hoped to do better this time around, having worked on making his technique tighter.
"The pitches here are very helpful for whoever does well. Fast bowlers have something [for them] in the wicket, the ball will spin and bounce a little bit, but if you apply yourself, you will get a lot of runs," he said. "What I learnt from the last tour was, I left a few balls and got bowled. I went back and worked a lot on my batting. I decided to play a lot closer to the body and the Kookaburra ball does a little bit for the first 20-25 overs and then you can play your shots and get a lot of runs. So, if I can fight through that as an opening batsman, then there are a lot of runs to be made".
His performance in the practice game has also put him in a good frame of mind after the lengthy lay-off. "It has been quite a tough time to be away from cricket, to be away from the thing that you love the most. To just sit at home and watch the boys playing, it was really hard for me. I was middling the ball from ball one, hit a few boundaries from the middle of the bat, rotated the strike and not a lot of balls beat my bat."