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KL Rahul: 'Batting at No. 5 has helped me understand my game better'

He says he was not used to playing spin straightaway, but has "thrived on performing in tough conditions and under pressure"

Sreshth Shah
Sreshth Shah
Batting at No. 5 in ODIs has helped KL Rahul understand his game better. After his match-winning and unbeaten 64 against Sri Lanka in Kolkata which helped India seal the series, Rahul said that batting in the middle order allows him the time to read the match situation and relax before he walks out to bat.
"One thing I really enjoy is that you don't have to rush back into batting," Rahul, who also kept wickets this series, told Star Sports. "You get time to put your feet up, have a nice cold shower, have a good meal and then relax and then see what's happening before walking in. That's the good thing about batting at No. 5.
"Batting at No. 5 has just helped me understand my game a little bit better. Given the ball is slightly older, you have to play spin straightaway and that's not what I am used to usually. Obviously Rohit [Sharma] is very clear that that's where he wants me to bat and he's conveyed that to me. So now I am challenging myself to get used to this position."
On Thursday, Rahul walked in when India were reduced to 62 for 3 in the 10th over while chasing 216. He then plugged one end up with risk-free batting and built useful partnerships with Shreyas Iyer, Hardik Pandya and Axar Patel to take India over the line. Rahul also credited India'a bowlers for bowling Sri Lanka out for 215 in under 40 overs, which didn't leave India with a challenging asking rate.
"The bowlers bowled really well, they kept the pressure on and when you have the team all out for 200-220, it becomes a bit easy to chase later on," Rahul said. "You know three-four runs an over is not that challenging but Sri Lanka put up a good fight. They started really well with the ball, they got the early breakthroughs and there was pressure on us, but we enjoyed ourselves in the middle. [I had] good partnership with Shreyas, Hardik and Axar."
India's task on Thursday was vastly different from how they batted in Guwahati where they amassed 373 after getting a push from the top order.
"When I went to bat in the last game [at 213 for 3], obviously we were in a comfortable position and we needed to up the ante and really take on the bowling and not give ourselves too many balls. Today was different. When I walked in, we were chasing 3.5-4 runs an over, lost four wickets so it was important to really soak in that pressure and see that the main bowlers don't really get in the game."
At the press conference after the game, Rahul said that his fluctuating batting number over the years did not lead to him feeling stressed over continuity in the batting line-up. Instead, he felt that him being asked to move up or down the order - based on team combinations and tactics - was a sign that the team management was confident enough to trust him.
"Firstly, I want to be in the playing XI, that's the most important thing," Rahul said. "What the team requires me to do, I try to do that. I've done that throughout the time I played for India.
"I remember the first Test I batted, I batted at No. 6. Then I opened. Then I was No. 6 at the 2019 World Cup. Then after an injury to Shikhar [Dhawan], I had to go back to open again. I've played at No. 5, I've played at No. 4, I've been asked to wicketkeep. I think it is very fun for me. I have thrived on performing in tough conditions and under pressure. It tells me that the team trusts me and backs me. It has helped me understand my batting and myself better. When you decide to choose a team game as a sport or profession, you have to be ready or flexible to do whatever job you're asked to do."
With Rahul no longer vice-captain in ODIs and plenty of wicketkeeping and middle-order options for the management to explore before the World Cup later this year, the Kolkata innings became all the more important for him. India needed someone to stabilise the chase after a top-order stutter, and Rahul didn't leave the field till the job was done.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx