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Analysis

KL Rahul curbs his enthusiasm to make his comeback count

In just this one innings, he has already left alone almost as many deliveries as he did across five Tests in England in 2018, and it's already paying off

Nagraj Gollapudi
06-Aug-2021
At times things are simpler when you don't have too much time to think about them. KL Rahul might agree.
On August 2, Rahul had walked into Trent Bridge for India's training session thinking he would not be playing the first Test starting two days later, even though his century against a County XI during the warm-up game, batting at No. 5, put him in contention. Mayank Agarwal - one of Rahul's best mates, and Karnataka team-mate - batted alongside Rohit Sharma in the nets, preparing to play the Test. Then, about a quarter of an hour into the session, Agarwal was hit by a short delivery from Mohammed Siraj, and he was ruled out of the match with a concussion soon after. Things moved swiftly from thereon for Rahul, who was given extra time to bat during that nets session. Two days later, at the toss, India captain Virat Kohli said Rahul would be opening alongside Rohit.
It was on India's previous trip to England when Rahul's technique and temperament unravelled against the England fast men. In the first four Tests, Rahul had an average of just 14.12, and overall he was bowled five times and out lbw three times, a higher tally of such dismissals than any player across both teams. Despite that wretched form, Rahul finished the tour on a high note at The Oval, with a belligerent 149 in the final innings of the series. Failures followed in Australia and in the West Indies, though, and convinced the selectors that they had to drop Rahul.
Still, Rahul went about his business. He made runs in white-ball cricket, both in the IPL and for India and eventually made his way back into the Test reckoning, with the idea being to shift him from the opening slots down into the middle order. With his ability to accelerate quickly and being a 360-degree batter, the team management and Rahul agreed that he could be a good option in middle now that Rohit along with Shubman Gill, Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw were slotted as openers.
But now, with an injured Gill back in India, Shaw still in quarantine after heading over to England from the limited-overs series in Sri Lanka, and Agarwal concussed, doors reopened at the top of the order for Rahul. He might have overthought and over-complicated things in 2018, but three years later, at 29, Rahul is more experienced, more assured, more responsible. Perhaps taking charge of the captaincy at Punjab Kings in the IPL has given him that extra confidence.
All this matters only because opening in Test cricket is the most demanding of batting jobs, especially in the overcast conditions that have persisted over the first two days of this Trent Bridge Test. Rahul was posted seemingly out of his comfort zone and asked to help set the tone for India, not just for this Test but for the series.
Being naturally aggressive and one of the best stroke-makers in cricket at present, the biggest challenge for Rahul - and Rohit too - was to curb his enthusiasm. But, especially as an opener in England, abstinence does pay. Ask M Vijay. In the first two Tests of the 2014 England tour, played at Trent Bridge and Lord's, Vijay left 122 (first innings) and 101 (second innings) deliveries respectively. Vijay scored 146 in the first innings in Nottingham and then 95 at Lord's where India went 1-0 up having drawn the first Test.
In this Test, Rahul invoked his inner "Monk" - as Vijay is nicknamed by the cricketing fraternity. In this innings, Rahul left 76 deliveries, which is next only to those efforts by Vijay for an Indian batter in England since that tour. More strikingly, it is also only 10 fewer deliveries than the 86 Rahul had left alone in the entire five-Test series in 2018, when he played 10 innings and faced 450 deliveries.
One important reason Rahul could leave all those balls alone was because he was absolutely confident about where his off stump was, something he struggled with three years ago. That allowed Rahul to pick the right deliveries to play. What also helped him get settled in was that, in the first hour on Thursday, the England fast bowlers bowled well outside off stump and limited fuller deliveries. Runs did not come easy but Rahul respected the conditions. He stayed patient.
That helped in the animated contest he had with Ollie Robinson, who tried to disrupt his concentration by exchanging words at times. While he did not shy away from responding, Rahul seemingly stayed calm and responded most deafeningly with the bat. Robinson's plan involved pitching consistently on a good length, on the fourth stump, and nipping the ball away with the idea to lure Rahul to push at it. Rahul did not budge; he would stretch forward and upon reading the line leave the deliveries confidently. Rahul was also aware that with Robinson's height, he could trust the bounce.
Rahul also made subtle technical tweaks as compared to 2018. According to former India keeper Dinesh Karthik, who is on television commentary for Sky Cricket, Rahul has narrowed down the wide stance he had in 2018. Along with that, Rahul had also straightened and shortened his backlift - combined with a big stride, all these changes were allowing Rahul to meet the ball quickly and with a full face of the bat.
There were some errors of judgement, of course. Twice Anderson induced edges of Rahul. Twice it flew to the slips. Twice Rahul survived: first on 52 when Dom Sibley spilled one to his left, and then on 78, as Joe Root failed to grasp a thick edge with the reverse-cupped hands. England's plan was now to bowl fuller, attack the stumps, make the Indian batters play more to create the chances. Root's drop came in Anderson's first over after lunch.
In his next Anderson persisted with his plan. Rahul pushed an on-drive for a double and then punched an elegant cover drive for four. Anderson pushed Rahul back with a short delivery that climbed to Rahul's shoulders. Two balls later Anderson lured Rahul with length delivery on the fourth stump, the type of ball that Rahul had previously been taking a good stride towards, having a good look at, and leaving alone. This time, though, he went for a drive and watched Anderson celebrate.
For a moment Rahul stood there even as Anderson and England were celebrating. The umpire had to raise his finger to force him to retreat back to the dressing room. Rahul was furious at his mistake. Furious at getting carried away, at getting distracted.
As ESPNcricinfo's Match Day expert VVS Laxman said today, this was a "breakthrough innings" for Rahul. On his comeback in whites, Rahul showed what he has learned from his time away from Test cricket: respect the conditions, respect the format, read the match situation, and wait for the loose ball.
The chance might have come courtesy unfortunate circumstances for his friend and team-mate, but Rahul has so far proven that he has earned this recall.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo