KL Rahul puts tough days behind him to essay match-winning role
India's wicketkeeper-batter came into the game on the back of immense scrutiny of his Test form that eventually led to him losing his place
"Strike rates are overrated."
It's a KL Rahul quote that gets played out often on social media even if the context in which he said it tends to get ignored conveniently.
But if there is an innings he could pick out to throw light on what he actually meant - not that he needs to - Rahul need not look any further than his match-winning 75 not out in the first ODI against Australia in Mumbai.
Rahul walked in with India's top order having been blown away in a small chase of 189. At 16 for 3 after the fifth over, India needed a rescue act. There was swing, zip off the pitch and lateral movement, elements that make Mitchell Starc menacing.
It couldn't have been a tougher return. Rahul at No. 5 has been prolific as a finisher in ODIs over the last two years, but the Rahul who came into this series was doing so on the back of immense scrutiny of his Test form that eventually led to him losing his place to Shubman Gill for the last two Tests.
However, that he was played as a frontline wicketkeeper despite Ishan Kishan's inclusion in the starting XI in Mumbai was a mark of the team management's confidence. All said, this wasn't a role that came about because of Rishabh Pant's unavailability.
Rahul had been backed to do the job even with Pant in the mix. This was, in a sense, a mere reiteration of the management's belief in Rahul's abilities. After all, the Rahul who now runs the ship did a similar job two decades earlier for the sake of team balance.
The day began with an excellent catch diving to his right to dismiss Steven Smith. Rahul moved swiftly to cover enough ground to his right before putting in a dive to pouch Smith's slash and celebrated wildly, the satisfaction of having pulled off the catch showing. The awkward landing, however, may have twinged a neck muscle or two, something that became apparent as he walked out to bat later.
Needing to avert a Starc hat-trick, Rahul allayed nerves by opening his scoring with a neatly-timed cover drive first ball, but soon enough found himself challenged by Sean Abbott's away-swingers. But Rahul had decided he wasn't going to be bogged down.
At the first sign of the bowler dropping short, Rahul brought out the cut. It's a shot he profited the most from during his 91-ball knock in which he had an impressive control percentage of 83, as per ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball logs.
"I saw three wickets fall early, and Starc was really swinging the ball. When he gets the ball back in, he's a dangerous bowler," Rahul told Star Sports after India's five-wicket win. "So I just wanted to bat through the first 15-20 balls and take it from there.
"I wasn't really thinking about runs, it wasn't a big total, so I just wanted to give myself time, play normal cricket shots and not go searching for runs. A couple of boundaries early on settled my nerves a bit and got me going."
Just as Rahul began to settle in, he saw Gill get out to a loose drive to backward point. At 39 for 4, India were in dire need of a partnership. Rahul managed to find that support, first putting on 44 with Hardik Pandya and then an unbroken 108-run stand with Ravindra Jadeja, who was playing his first ODI in eight months. Rahul had a slice of luck on 41, when an outside edge flew wide of Smith at slip. That aside, it was a blemish-free knock.
"Whoever I batted with, the talk was there's a bit of help in the wicket, but we can't go into our shell and look to play out a certain bowler," Rahul explained. "[The mantra was to] just be positive in your mind and if the ball is there and if you can play proper cricket shot and gets some runs, that's the only way you could put the pressure back on the bowlers.
"We didn't want to go into our shell and keep defending. We wanted to run hard, and put the loose balls away. We spoke of what are the shots we can play on this pitch. Any width we get, we can play the cut and if you're good with your footwork, you can still survive get some runs and survive and get some runs. The guys I played with did that beautifully, it was fun batting with Hardik and Jadeja."
Rahul was particularly pleased batting alongside Jadeja. They ran well, and the left-right combination that can often throw bowlers off gear with their lines played into India's hands. Adam Zampa may have prepared for a match-up with Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav, but here he was to contend with a left-right pair in Jadeja and Rahul. He delivered six wicketless overs for 37.
"The minute a left-hander walked in, I got a few loose balls as well, and that happens to the best of bowlers," Rahul said. "A left-hander walking in helped at that stage. He's been in great form and he batted beautifully. He's played a lot of cricket and knows exactly what to do at that position. We enjoy batting together. He runs fast, and I love someone who can run fast, run hard and put the pressure on the fielding team and bowlers. I'm happy we could do that today."
Nothing, however, brought a bigger smile to Rahul's face than when he was asked about his wicketkeeping. Did he enjoy it?
"Yeah, I did," he smiled. "When there's bounce, I really enjoy keeping. On low wickets, it's a challenge physically. I enjoy playing here at the Wankhede. It was fun. The ball was doing a bit but as a 'keeper, I was always in the game.
"There were edges coming, and a few balls were down leg. On wickets where there's help, you know the fast bowlers are going to try a little extra and spray the ball here and there times. That gave me an opportunity to dive and showcase my keeping skills which was fun."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo