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Rahul: 'I may end up letting the team down if I play the way I want to play'

For the fourth year in a row, he is among the top three scorers in the IPL but his strike rate has been dipping

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
There has always been a clamour for KL Rahul to bat freely. He has all the shots in the book and, at a pinch, he is more than capable of inventing a few new ones. Those abilities were all on show in Punjab Kings' final match of IPL 2021 when Rahul scored 98* off a mere 42 balls in his side's six-wicket win. So why does he always insist on batting within himself?
"I feel like I may end up letting the team down if I play the way I want to play."
Rahul has been a sedate presence at the top of the order ever since he was made captain of the Punjab franchise. This added responsibility may well be playing a part in his throttling down, and so too a middle order that doesn't really have a mainstay.
Runs continue to flow no matter what method he uses though.
In 2018, when he broke the record for the fastest fifty in IPL history, he finished as the tournament's third-highest run-getter with a strike rate of 158. In 2019, he was second with a strike rate of 135. In 2020, he finally claimed the orange cap but the strike rate came down to 129.
This season Rahul seems to have found a better balance, his 626 runs - leading the charts right now - coming at a strike rate of 139. Aggression up top was the need of the hour on Thursday after Chennai Super Kings were restricted to 134 on a good batting pitch.
"We wanted to score it before 14 overs [to try and stay in playoff contention]," Rahul said at the presentation. "Today was one of those days where I could hit every ball. [I] had complete clarity of what I wanted to do. No better feeling than hitting the ball from the middle of the bat."
Rahul's innings featured so many stunning hits. Not least of which was the one he took on his own body. A Josh Hazlewood bouncer left a bruise to the batter's forehead, but he shook it off very quickly and launched into the fast bowler, taking him for 4, 4, 0 and 6 and setting the tone for a near-flawless innings.
The Kings captain cruised to fifty off 25 balls and was within sight of a hundred even in a small chase.
"I don't think these innings come too often in this world," team-mate Aiden Markram said after the game. "He needs to enjoy that. He's done something quite special tonight. Hopefully he appreciates it. This team, behind the scenes, has gone crazy after every shot as you can imagine. It's been unbelievable to watch."
Proof of Markram's words came later in the day at the post-match press conference when Chris Jordan gushed about Rahul's batting prowess.
"KL is a world class batsman. It's such a joy to watch him play. I first played with him when I played for RCB back in 2016 and even then, some of the shots he played, I just knew he was a class player. It just seemed like, especially today, any time he felt like hitting a six, he just took it, no matter where the ball was. As I said he's such a high quality player, can play in various situations and in various ways and he's more or less a 360 degree player as well. It was just great to see him go out there today and lead from the front and get us over the line in timely fashion to give us an outside chance of qualifying."
Whether Kings make the playoffs or not - and it looks unlikely, they still need Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians to lose and lose big - Rahul's form all through the IPL has been a huge plus for them, and for India as well as they prepare for the upcoming T20 World Cup.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo