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KL Rahul has learned to enjoy the defensive side of batting all over again. Having been dropped from the Test team after a lean run through 2018 and 2019 - he averaged 22.23 over 15 Tests in that period, mostly played away from home - Rahul has made a strong comeback this year, scoring 461 runs in five Tests at an average of 46.10, including centuries at Lord's and Centurion that set up memorable India wins. He has credited a change in mindset for this transformation, specifically being able to enjoy leaving the ball outside off stump, an aspect of his game that has undergone a significant upgrade.
"It's something that I'm enjoying doing a lot, to be honest, and that's the key to Test cricket - you need to enjoy leaving balls outside the off stump," Rahul said after India wrapped up a 113-run win in Centurion. "I know we play a lot of one-day and T20 cricket and smashing the ball all over the park is exciting and it's thrilling at the same time, but when you come to Test cricket you've got to learn to be disciplined and learn to play the waiting game and try and enjoy that sometimes.
"The mistakes happen when you get bored of doing the same things, but for me I've tried to enjoy leaving balls outside off stump, enjoy playing the defensive shots, enjoy tiring the bowlers out at times. That is what is expected out of me as an opening batter for the team.
"This year, since I've started playing Test matches again, since England, I've started enjoying doing those things, and yeah, had a good knock here this game, I'll have to go back again to Wanderers and try and do the same thing all over again, which is exciting to me."
Rahul now has hundreds in each of the six countries he has played Test cricket in - Australia, England, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies. He rates the one at Centurion among his very best.
"I think right up there, in terms of the conditions and the wicket and how challenging it was," he said. "I think this innings will be right up there for me because it took a lot of guts and a lot of determination and discipline to get this century and get my team to a winning position, so yeah, it's right up there."
KL Rahul poses with the Player-of-the-Match trophy•AFP/Getty Images
Rahul's revival has come in a year of triumph for India as a Test team. They began it with a defiant draw in Sydney followed by a barnstorming win with a second-string attack in Brisbane, and they've followed it up with Test wins at Lord's, The Oval and now Centurion, as well as home-series wins over England and New Zealand.
"Look, I think it's a super-super special year for Team India and the kind of achievements we've gotten in this year has been truly special and I think it will go down as one of the greatest years in Indian cricket history, especially Test cricket," Rahul said. "The victories that you just mentioned have taken us a lot of hard work and a lot of discipline and we've worked really hard as a team for the last few years, and we're slowly starting to see results and we're very happy."
India's pace attack has been key to the away victories, including at Centurion where Mohammed Shami bagged match figures of 8 for 107. Rahul said he found facing Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj in the nets an even more daunting prospect than facing Test-match attacks in the middle.
"Playing them in the nets is a lot more difficult, especially for me or a lot of batters who don't enjoy [batting in the nets] that much," he said. "These people put fear in us. They absolutely do not treat us as team-mates when we're facing them in the nets, they're very very competitive people and very very competitive athletes and players, so yes, we've very lucky to have such quality in our bowling line-up. And 2-3 others are sitting out as well, who have proven themselves and who are terrific fast bowlers, Ishant [Sharma] and Umesh [Yadav]. We have great bench strength as well."
The Centurion pitch - as predicted by many including Rahul himself in the lead-up to the Test match - was slow to start with before it quickened up significantly to enhance the threat of its up-and-down bounce. With this in mind, Rahul said India had won an important toss.
"I think it was a really crucial toss for us to win, especially after we saw how the pitch started playing on day three and day four," he said. "Yeah, I think winning the toss was really really crucial and it was very crucial for us to put a decent total up on board in the first innings, because we knew that the cracks would open up and it would get harder as the game progressed to score runs, so our aim was to get around 350-360 and give our bowlers a chance to go out there and do what they do, so really happy that we could do that."