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The return of KL Rahul and what it means to be in form

Sometimes the eagerness to do well can be counterproductive

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
KL Rahul has scored 244 runs in his first two Tests since 2019  •  Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

KL Rahul has scored 244 runs in his first two Tests since 2019  •  Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Right from his first day at the highest level, KL Rahul came across as a batter who would fit the bill for all three formats without compromising the foundation of his game. His stance, feet movement, back lift and the downswing of his bat were all in perfect sync. Even though it took him some time to meet the demands of T20, there was no looking back from the day he cracked its code.
There's a mysterious element to competitive cricket - when everything seems to be moving smoothly in the desired direction, something will threaten to derail the train. It happened to Rahul too. There were injuries and then a loss of form.
It's important to understand why and how one loses form, for even its presence is something you can't put a finger on. One day you are so comfortable with your game that you are not thinking about your responses, and on another day, it's the only thing you're thinking about. Of course, the former happens when you are in form and the latter, when you are out of it.
Cricket skills are like a wheel in motion and while you're constantly attempting to upgrade your skills, sometimes it's tough to just hold on to what you thought was your core strength. Minor errors find ways to creep into your game like uninvited guests and before you acknowledge their presence, they start controlling the way you think. In fact, you reach a point when you are thinking only about them.
Rahul was going through a lean patch and spending countless hours in the nets between games, but the hard work wasn't translating into runs in the middle. From the outside, you could see he wasn't sure about his trigger movement - while in England (in 2018), he was out poking at deliveries, in India, he was getting trapped in front. Both sorts of dismissals often stem from how much you are moving and the timing of that movement.
When you're in "form", this movement happens almost unconsciously, because your focus is on the ball coming your way. But when you're not in "form", you end up thinking about the same trigger movement and that leads to a delayed response to the incoming delivery.
Sanjay Bangar, India's former batting coach, recounts how after getting dismissed in a Test during that horrid run between 2018 and 2019, Rahul couldn't wait to get into the nets to iron out his mistakes. He had just been dismissed, had seen the dismissals a few times on the screen and perhaps revisited it a hundred times in his head, but he wasn't willing to let it sink in. He was eager to get to the nets while India were still batting in the Test.
While there's nothing wrong with the intent to identify and rectify mistakes, too much of anything, even training, can be counterproductive.
That day Rahul was eager to iron out his flaws. Once he was dropped from the Indian team, he must have felt eager to get back into it. That's a natural human reaction to rejection, even more so when you have already tasted success at the highest level. You seem to know the secret to success but have temporarily forgotten the username and password. You try different combinations, only to draw blanks.
"Eager" has two very different meanings - keen and anxious. When you start, you are keen. But little do you know when keenness turns into anxiety. You start thinking too much about the result and too little about the process. It's not that you aren't putting in the hours, but you stop noticing the joy of playing the game, the melody of ball hitting the bat. And then one day, you stop obsessing about the result and things start to fall in place again.
Of course, there's a lot of conjecture in my reading of how it must have panned out for Rahul, but I won't be surprised if it wasn't too dissimilar to what I have described.
It's true that the IPL is a big part of a modern cricketer's career, but I can bet my last dollar on the fact that Rahul isn't one to be satisfied by just the IPL reward. His bigger goal was not just playing for India again but to play for India in all three formats. He re-established himself in white-ball cricket when he assumed the roles of keeper and finisher. And while he had prepped for a middle-order role in Tests, life played a trick to get him back to where he belongs - as opener.
Rahul's comeback as an opener in Test cricket wasn't so much about his ability to succeed at the top - you don't score five Test tons (four of them away from home) if you don't have the skills. For me, it was about his eagerness to do the right thing. Was he keen or was he anxious?
If his first innings of the tour, 84 at Trent Bridge, showed that he's trusting his skills against the new ball, Rahul's century at Lord's established that he is back for good.
It takes a lot of patience and self-belief to hang around for 18 runs off 100 balls when you know you have the shots to score faster, and to also insulate yourself from the fact that your opening partner has outscored you massively (at that point, Rohit Sharma was on 81 of 122 balls).
Rahul isn't anxiously eager to get bat on ball and is in a happy place while leaving a lot of deliveries alone. He isn't anxiously eager to hit an extra shot on the up either. Instead, he's willing to bide his time and wait for the right moment to up the ante. It's not that minor errors will never find their way into his batting or that he'll never go out of form again, but it's very heartening to see him bat the way he is right now. The next challenge for him is to extend this good form for as long as possible.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash