Chris Gayle's ball-striking has waned in the recent past, but he would still be among the first picks in many T20 XIs. Not for the Kings XI Punjab, however, despite striking at over 150 for them in 24 innings in the last two seasons. That the Kings XI have the luxury of leaving out the Universe Boss in order to accommodate a young middle-order overseas batsman is down to the presence of another boss at the top - KL Rahul.
In IPL 2018, Rahul hit his peak as a T20 batsman, reeling off a 14-ball fifty against the Delhi Capitals - the fastest-ever in the IPL. In that season, he took more risks at the top and often went into overdrive, striking at 158.41. In IPL 2019, he evolved from setting up games to taking greater responsibility and taking them deeper. He struck at 135.38 and had attributed that dip to his evolution as an opener. He no longer wanted to be just a dasher at the top; he wanted to make the most of his starts and finish games for his side.
In the Kings XI's first match of the current edition, Rahul's opening partner and childhood friend Mayank Agarwal took the game deeper against the Capitals. However, they couldn't close that out and eventually lost in the Super Over. In their second match against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, it was Rahul who batted through the innings and paced it to near-perfection. He finished with an unbeaten 132 off 69 balls - the highest score by an Indian in the IPL and fourth-highest overall - and according to ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, his contribution was worth 164. Gayle was impressed by Rahul's knock, standing up and applauding from the dressing room, as was Agarwal. In response, the entire Royal Challengers line-up could muster just 109 in 17 overs.
Sure, Rahul was dropped twice by Virat Kohli in the outfield in the 17th and 18th overs and the Royal Challengers bowlers provided freebies, but his versatility stood out. With the ball coming onto the bat nicely on a fresh pitch in the early exchanges, Rahul simply backed himself to hit on the up and through the line. While Agarwal jumped outside leg and lofted Umesh Yadav over extra cover, Rahul opted to cut out risks and eased himself into his innings.
Yuzvendra Chahal then snapped the opening stand by breaching Agarwal's defences with a googly and combined with offspinner Washington Sundar to slow the Kings XI down. Only after that, and only when Yadav offered a free-hit, did Rahul hit the ball in the air, scything him over extra cover for six in the tenth over.
Three overs later, Navdeep Saini tested Rahul with extra pace and bounce, drawing a top-edged hook that flew past the keeper for four. Next ball from Saini was at 145.2kph and on a hard length around off stump. It was neither cuttable nor pullable. There was no room. Rahul stood tall, with a pronounced front elbow, and somehow manipulated the ball over extra cover for four - a shot that would've made his childhood coach Samuel Jayraj proud. While playing the shot, Rahul's towel fell off his back but his balance didn't fall away at all.
With Nicholas Pooran and Glenn Maxwell failing to get going, the Kings XI were 132 for 3 at the end of 16 overs. After Rahul and Agarwal ran away to 50 for 0 in the powerplay, ESPNcricinfo's Forecaster reckoned that Kings XI would end with 180. Such a tall scored seemed out of the Kings XI's reach after the middle-overs wobble, but Rahul, aided by two reprieves from Kohli, ultimately vaulted the side past 200.
The square boundaries in Dubai are bigger than the ones in Mohali or Indore, and there was some grip for the cutters from Dale Steyn and Dube, but Rahul kept clearing the fence for fun. The Kings XI amassed 74 off the last four overs, of which Rahul alone scored 60 off 18 balls.
Rahul had feared for his game during the pandemic-induced lockdown, saying he had sleepless nights wondering if he would be able to pick line and length as before. But, here he showed great clarity in thought. Anticipating cutters banged into the middle of the pitch from Steyn, he sat deep in the crease and pulled them fiercely square for sixes. One such six landed in the top tier, leaving Steyn with a wry smile on his face. In all, Rahul picked up 44 runs off 20 short or short-of-a-good length deliveries.
The carnage ended with a six off a similar short one off Dube as Rahul put more smiles on the faces of his Kings XI team-mates and coach Anil Kumble.
At the post-match presentation, Rahul, though, admitted to rustiness, having just returned to action after months of downtime. "I've actually been not so confident," he told host broadcaster Star. "I had a chat with Maxi yesterday and he asked how I was feeling. I said I was still not feeling completely in control of my batting and he said, 'You must be joking because you're hitting it well.'
"Quite honestly, I was nervous, but I knew that if I spend a little time in the middle and hit a few balls from the middle of the bat, it will all settle down. I am happy that I could do it."
Maybe Rahul was indeed joking to Maxwell. But if he wasn't, then imagine what all he could do once he hits top form.