Five years ago, few would have put money on KL Rahul being a white-ball destroyer. He grew up listening to the virtues of playing straight, leaving the ball, occupying the crease and blunting the new ball. And when he made his first-class debut in 2010-11, everyone, including Rahul Dravid, heaped praises on his old-school principles. Even then, there was little doubt he was a superb timer of the cricket ball.
Now, as he looks to resurrect a career that is at the crossroads, the T20 instincts many believe have trickled into his muscle memory, have made him vulnerable against the moving ball. As a direct consequence, his Test numbers have fallen - an average of 34.58 in 60 innings - and they do no justice to a player of his ability. He's been told in no uncertain terms that 'big runs', perhaps of the kind his best friend Mayank Agarwal made two seasons ago, are needed. The early signs are promising, albeit in white-ball cricket. On Saturday, his List A best of 131 propelled Karnataka to their second consecutive win as they beat Kerala.
In a domestic one-day competition, as an experienced batsman, your first instinct is to attack. However, you could have forgiven him for being confused on Saturday. Does he play for the side? Does he play for his form? Does he play according to the conditions? Does he stick to his natural game? In his first outing against Jharkhand on Thursday, he wasted a start, out for 29 after doing all the hard work.
Against Kerala, conditions were ripe for fast bowling. Extravagant swing, extravagant seam. The curator would've bargained for a bit of both, but the wet weather over the past fortnight hasn't allowed much preparation time. On an overcast morning where the ball kept swinging and the moisture didn't dry out, Rahul was up against it the moment his former opening partner and Kerala captain, Robin Uthappa, who knows a thing or two about the Chinnaswamy deck, elected to bowl and subjected Karnataka to an examination.
"Once I got set, wanted to make sure I carry on longer because we were only playing five specialist batsmen and three allrounders," Rahul said after the match. "My plan was to bat till 40-45 overs, and I wanted to stick to that. I just want to stay disciplined with my shot selection, get time in the middle and enjoy my batting again. I haven't been in the middle for a while, so just wanted to enjoy spending that time."
Rahul was edgy upfront, unmistakably. Sandeep Warrier, looking to build on a memorable 2018-19 season, kept hitting the seam with great frequency. His first spell read: 5-2-15-2, accounting for the wickets of Devdutt Padikkal and KV Siddharth. What made it even more challenging for Rahul was that Warrier got the ball to nip back in and also hold its line. He kept playing and missing, he was meeting the ball a little high on the bat, he was getting square on to full deliveries. He wasn't leaning into the drives for an apparent fear of nicking behind. The first 30 minutes were a struggle.
At the other end, he had the nippy Basil Thampi and KM Asif, both capable of bowling 140kph to contend with. Where Warrier bowled length and slightly back-of-length, Thampi erred on the fuller side. And on the stumps. Rahul let his hand-eye coordination take over, flicking disdainfully. When he went full out on middle-and-off again, Rahul effortlessly lofted him through the line over cover for six.
For someone who admittedly doesn't sometimes give himself a chance to breathe, Rahul was full of intent, even while leaving deliveries once he saw off Warrier's first spell - a slight change from his most recent avatar in the Caribbean where Shannon Gabriel kept troubling him with bounce and pace leading to him often playing indecisively at the ball. Here, he was clear about wanting to occupy the crease, even as Manish Pandey came in and waltzed to three boundaries in his first five balls. This helped Rahul quickly slip into the role of a second fiddle.
If the first 30 minutes were about finding his feet, the next hour was about ensuring he didn't throw it away. Until he got to his half-century, he wasn't predetermining shots. He was - as the old cliché goes - playing to the merit. There were flashes of frustration when he was beaten attempting cut shots to deliveries that weren't all that short, but his picking of lengths got better as the innings progressed.
"Batting here in the first 10-15 overs in a day game is quite a challenge, it's like playing out the first session with the red ball," Rahul said. "I need to work on my game, so this [batting early on] is a good challenge. I have to stay a lot more disciplined and can't get ahead of the game. I don't think it's just a cakewalk to come and get runs here, you still have to work hard."
In between the struggle, he'd time and again play some of the most breathtaking shots, even if they wouldn't give him boundaries. He slapped length deliveries from Asif over cover, used a full forward stride to drive against the turn against Vinoop Manoharan and even played the pull off Warrier in his second spell.
The first half-century came off 68 balls, and he took just 40 to bring up the next fifty runs. There were no nerves in the 90s either; he sailed through by crashing two boundaries on 91 and then jogging to bring up his sixth List-A century. As his team-mates applauded, Rahul simply lifted his right hand to acknowledge them. With 12 overs remaining, here was his chance to kick on and make a big hundred.
Now, the proper white-ball destroyer surfaced. He welcomed Warrier for his third spell with two disdainful hits for six. The first was an effortless loft to clear extra cover and the next - typical of a fast bowler snarling in after being hit for six - was a short ball that he clubbed over wide long-on. The let-off on 114, when Sachin Baby couldn't hold on to a one-handed attempt at cover was the only reprieve in his innings. Eventually, he was out playing for the team's cause, but not before he'd brought up his highest List A score, and not before reminding the selectors the quality that they all so often talk about is very much there. Now, for him to marry that with consistency to make a return to the Test squad.