KL Rahul has the fastest fifty in the IPL. He has been among the tournament's top three batsmen in the last two seasons. This year he makes his debut as IPL captain, hoping to lead Kings XI Punjab to their maiden IPL title. Rahul has led just once in his career, for India A in 2019. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his captaincy role model, working with team director and head coach Anil Kumble, and why Chris Gayle running singles might not always be a good sign.
Keeper, opener, captain: only Adam Gilchirst has done it in the IPL. And won the title. You have big shoes to fill. How are you looking forward to the challenge?
When you put it like that it does sound quite challenging! It is a very, very new… I won't say a job, but a new responsibility given to me. I'm looking forward to it. So far it has not made me nervous or made me question myself, so, yeah, I'm quite excited.
I have always played my cricket thinking like the captain of the team, even though I wasn't. I am always trying to read the situation, trying to see what I would do if I were a captain. So I feel it is just going to be an extension of what I have been doing. Obviously it is going to be a lot more difficult than what I am thinking right now. I will take it as it comes. I have a great team and great support staff to back me and help me get into the groove.
As a captain, who is your role model?
It has always been MS Dhoni. I'm grateful that I've had the honour of playing under him and with him. Even Rohit [Sharma] is quite a good captain. Virat [Kohli] is a phenomenal captain. I have learned a lot from all of them and hopefully I can use all of that knowledge when I am captaining.
Can you elaborate on Dhoni's influence, with him now retiring from international cricket?
It was quite shocking. I was honestly heartbroken. I'm sure all of us in the team or whoever has played under him and with him would have wanted to give him a big send-off and wanted him to play one more time so we could have had that opportunity to do something special for him. It is what it is.
He has been someone who has guided us all really, really well. And who has never expected us to change who we are. He has let us go out there and express ourselves and make our mistakes and learn from them. He has just let us be.
If we were ever in doubt, or if we wanted to look to somebody for answers, he was always there. He knew when to push the players.
Words fall short, man. Even the other day when I was trying [to write on Dhoni retiring] on Instagram or Twitter... I mean, what do you say about somebody like that? You don't have enough to say about how much he has done and how many lives he has changed and for how many people he is an inspiration - not just on the field but off the field [as well] with the things he has achieved. It is phenomenal.
"In 2018, it was all about my batting and how I can get the team off to a good start. But in 2019 it became about how I can win matches for my team once I got off to a decent start"
Moving back to you and Kings XI, will you continue to open and keep?
Yeah, that is what my plan is. That is what I'd want to do. But again, it is still early times. I still will have to talk to the coach. I don't know what Anil [Kumble] bhai is thinking. We'll see how the team combination sits. We do have plenty of options for wicketkeeper-batsmen. We will take it as it comes. We haven't really spoken about what role each one's going to play yet. The six-day quarantine in Dubai will give us enough time to get on the phone and talk to the coach and just get some planning going.
In 2019 you were the tournament's second-highest run-maker, behind David Warner. Your strike rate was 135. You made 593 runs at nearly 54, including a century and six fifties. Compare that with 2018. You were the third highest, behind Kane Williamson and Rishabh Pant: 659 runs at nearly 55, but a strike rate of over 158. Can you talk about the roles you played in the two seasons?
In 2019, if I'm not wrong, I won more games than in 2018. Yes, I did have the confidence and the freedom to go after the bowlers in 2018. I was in a different mindspace where I was looking to dominate bowling, and it was all about my batting and how I can get the team off to a good start. That was my main aim.
But in 2019 it became about how I can win matches for my team once I got off to a decent start. Every year every batsman evolves and he realises what's good for the team. My main aim became winning games for my team.
Setting up matches so the other players can come in and finish the game or to put my team in a good position - that was 2018. But 2019, my sole focus was to be there till the end and finish as many matches as I can. So that is why the difference in strike rate is there.
But it is not something we as players really sit and think about. At least for me, it is not something I'm worried about. I know I can play at 160 or I can play at 100, 110, whenever I need [to]. That is how I have changed my batting: I try to play the situation. I try to see what the wicket is like, and if I am batting first what is a good score, what is a defendable or a challenging enough total, and I try to pace my batting according to that.
So the added responsibility of leadership will not change the thought process on your batting?
I am sure it will make me think differently. I can't lie. Again, I don't think it is going to change me too much, because as a captain or as a player, my aim is to win matches for my team. This year we have an even better middle order - we have solid and more explosive batsmen, so it gives me a little more freedom than last year. It all depends on the given day. I have never played cricket with a set plan.
In the last two years KXIP have started strongly but then fallen off the rails in the second half. Both seasons they had six victories and eight losses, and finished in the bottom three. You lost the momentum built early in the season. Do you think that is one area that would need to be addressed, particularly?
Yeah, it was something that didn't work in our favour in the last couple of seasons. Keeping that in mind, even before the auction, that's what me and Anil bhai, the franchise and the support team spoke about, and this is one area where we felt we needed to fix that issue. And that's why we went after certain players and we were very clear on who the players were that would fit our line-up perfectly. We can't go into this season with that baggage, but we have learned that the IPL season is a long one and it is important that we peak at the right time and get momentum going with us.
Kumble was at helm for India in 2016 when you struck your maiden T20I century. Can you talk about the relationship and the thought process you two share that makes you confident both of you are on the same page?
He has done so well only because he is such a sharp thinker. He understands the game. I have played a lot under him and I have known him for a while, so I know how he works. He is going to make sure the boys are training hard and have the best mindset possible. I have never thought about it, because it has just always been easy working with Anil bhai. He makes things very simple, he makes players' roles and responsibilities very clear, so it gives them enough time to think about it. So as a captain my load will be a lot lesser with him around.
In Chris Gayle and Glenn Maxwell, you have two of the best batsmen in white-ball cricket, two outright match-winners. You have opened a lot with Gayle and share a good rapport with him. In fact, your opening partnership is the all-time best for Kings XI. What is the role you would like Gayle to play?
To have somebody like that, just the name itself, it shakes up an opponent and has so much impact. And what Chris has done for the teams he has played with, and Kings XI, is really, really unbelievable. If you were part of the Kings XI dressing room you will know what kind of impact he has had. He is somebody who is very, very open to talking to youngsters and helping other people out. He comes in with so much T20 experience. He is by far one of the best T20 players ever. You know that when he walks in and when it's his day, no matter how good the bowling line-up or an opponent, he will take them down and he will win the match. So to have somebody like that is a blessing.
The partnership that we have shared, and the rapport we have, is brilliant. We share a great friendship away from the field as well. He is somebody who has always guided me. I have gone up to him and spoken to him a lot about T20 batting and opening the batting. He is a very deep thinker of the game - I don't think a lot of people know that about him. They think he is just brute force and takes down [bowling attacks] and keeps scoring runs in T20s, but there is a lot of planning that Chris does well.
I get to understand and see that in the middle, and that has helped me in my game personally as well. To have him again this year is great. We have spoken a bit during the lockdown; he seems to be training really hard. He is keen to do what Chris Gayle does, so that is a great sign for us.
Would you like him to run a few more singles?
[Laughs]. No, not really. If he is running that means the team is not doing too well.
"Dhoni has been someone who has guided us all really well, and has never expected us to change who we are. He has let us go out there and express ourselves and make our mistakes and learn from them. He has just let us be"
What about Maxwell? This will be his second stint at Kings XI after having failed to meet expectations in the first season. He is coming off personal challenges. He will be key for you in the middle order, won't he?
Yes, we were very clear that we needed Maxwell in our middle order. I never had a doubt that he would go to any other team. The last couple of seasons he has changed a lot in terms of how he plays his cricket. He started to win so many more games for Australia. He was somebody who would go and take down bowling [attacks], and still can. But it is amazing to see how he has changed his mindset as well.
He is an allrounder that any team would love to have. He is a gun fielder. He will give it everything he's got every game. He'll never complain about being sore or tired. On wickets like those in the UAE, he would be more than handy as a bowler.
And he has captained his Big Bash team [Melbourne Stars], so I will have somebody, again, to go up to and bounce a few ideas off in the middle, and who can guide me and help me out. It is the first time I will be playing with him in a team, but he has always been a fierce competitor and I love that about Maxi. To have somebody like that in your team, and players like Sheldon Cottrell, Gayle, who give their all to the team, and who are characters, is great.
Virtually half the team, including the support staff, is from Karnataka. How will that have an impact?
The kind of performances the Karnataka team has been putting up for the last two-three years is there for everyone to see. And everybody wants Karnataka players in their line-up. They know that we come with the champion mindset, we are hungry to perform. The guys that we have in the team are a great set of players: [K] Gowtham and Karun [Nair], and Mayank [Agarwal] have been playing [together] for a while. And [J] Suchith is extremely talented, and has done really well with the opportunities he has got in the IPL. Having played with them for so many years, I understand what I can get out of them. Out of 20 players, I know what I will get out of at least [these] four players fully. I can think about the other 15 and 16 players and see how best I can use their skill sets to make sure our team wins.
What is the kind of cricket you would like Kings XI to play?
We have a team that is filled with impact players, power players - Mayank and [Nicholas] Pooran and Maxwell and [Jimmy] Neesham, and we have [Deepak] Hooda and Sarfaraz [Khan]. These are all players who can play 360 degrees. I can't think of any other team that has four, five batsmen who play like that.
We will be a team that adapts to different wickets, different situations - that is what being aggressive will be for us, not going kaboom from ball one. It is about reading the situation right and trying to do what best we can on that certain day. We will always be open to learning and will keep getting better as a team.
I haven't even spoken about the bowling unit: there is youth, there is experience, there is mystery. As a captain, when I look down at the team list, it is going to be difficult to put an XI down, we have so many options. It makes things competitive and it's good for me to pick from.