KL Rahul: A Long Journey to Becoming Indian Captain

KL Rahul in action in the second Test against South Africa.

Kannur Lokesh Rahul, commonly referred to as KL Rahul has played many roles: opening batter, wicketkeeper-batsman,  middle-order batter, and now captain. What has been common throughout all these roles is the elegance of his batting, the class he brings with his presence in the crease. Like every other cricketer Rahul has had ups and downs, but unlike so many others, Rahul has managed to overcome these hurdles.

KL Rahul and the Path to Becoming Indian Captain

KL Rahul’s Journey to the Indian Side

Rahul grew up and played his age-group cricket in Mangalore, a city in the state of Karnataka. But the journey to the hub of Karnataka Cricket in Bangalore was seven hours long. Rahul was lucky to have the Karnataka State Cricket Academy in Mangalore which was at the time run by coach Samuel Jayaraj who maintained faith in the young batter despite an early hiccup in being rejected in the Mangalore U13 zone try-outs. A testament to his early passion for the game, as well as the crucial need for a great work ethic, is an anecdote that Jayaraj has publicly shared that Rahul would always be 30 minutes early to training.

Being early to training and the last to leave is a common trait for many athletes in their childhood days ranging from Virat Kohli to Cristiano Ronaldo. A 10-year-old Rahul was put to the test in the academy against India U-17 bowlers, while he was also trained as a wicketkeeper in his early days. The theory behind this was that not only did it add a layer to his selection being a wicket-keeper batsman but he was also focusing on the ball for long periods as a wicketkeeper which helped him read the conditions and different deliveries and improved his concentration. That was intended to enhance his ability to bat for long periods.

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This intense training workload at the age of 10 brought rewards for Rahul as he was selected for the Mangalore U13 side and scored a double century at the prestigious Chinnaswamy Stadium for the team. Fatefully, none other than current India coach Rahul Dravid at the time was doing some fitness work at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) which is situated in Bangalore. Rahul’s class and hunger for runs at a very young age caught Dravid’s eye as Dravid had a long chat with Rahul after the game. Rahul ended up joining Dravid’s club, Bangalore United Cricket Club as he strived to play a higher level of cricket.

Jayaraj was adamant about the importance of batting and hitting as many balls as possible, he would drill into Rahul that his trips to Bangalore were only worth it if he batted and batted, the next morning Rahul would be playing back in Mangalore. The journey to the top wasn’t due to sheer luck- it was due to an astonishing amount of practice. Rahul’s batting transformation and elevation to the Karnataka side in 2010 also came as a result of his work ethic, Rahul improved his fitness levels, especially his core, to be able to remain more stable and have a strong transfer of weight which improved his power, allowing him to score more runs.

Ultimately, he made his first-class debut in 2010- where he first caught the eye of the world in 2012 with a scintillating 157 where his innings was described as ‘fearless’ and ‘international level’. The eyes on Rahul didn’t deter him at all where he adapted to any position the team put him in. As Robin Uthappa and Mayank Agarwal opened for Karnataka in the 2013 season, Rahul had to bat at three. Fazed? Hardly. Rahul scored over 1000 runs, finishing as the second highest run-scorer in the Ranji Trophy for that season, which was enough to earn him a spot on the 2014 Tour of Australia led by MS Dhoni.

Initial National Honours

Rahul made his Test debut for India against Australia at the MCG on Boxing Day. It doesn’t get bigger than that. Rahul had replaced Rohit Sharma who was under the pump for his constant failures overseas in the middle order. Batting at six was an adjustment for Rahul but as he had proven before he can adapt, even under pressure.

Maybe this time it did. Rahul’s first innings is one he will want to forget. Rahul had seemingly not prepared- quite odd for his work ethic. Nathan Lyon’s ability to drift the ball, as well as extract plenty of bounce, is universally known but Rahul had no answer for it. He resorted to the slog sweep as he rashly swiped across the line and top-edged resulting in his dismissal.

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In the second innings, Rahul was given a golden opportunity- sent out at number three with India chasing 380 in 70 overs to stay alive in the series. The situation was  tough but it allowed Rahul to express himself and play his game. And then a collective groan could be heard around the Swami Army area at the MCG as he pulled one across the line and top-edged it to be caught by the slipper running back for a score of one. Rahul’s first Test was also MSD’s last. Indian cricket had transitioned to a new era with Kohli at the helm.

But the team’s faith in Rahul was made clear by his promotion to his preferred position at the top of the order despite a dismal debut. Rahul paid it back and more. He started with 110 at the SCG, putting on a 140 run partnership with Kohli who may have been in the best Test-match form of his life.

That too against the pace of Starc and the unrelenting accuracy of Ryan Harris and Josh Hazlewood. Rahul didn’t stop there. He blasted a century in Sri Lanka the same year while hitting 150 in West Indies and then going back home against England to make 199. KL Rahul was proving to be the all conditions test match opener that India had craved for so long.

White Ball Phase

The stature of the IPL ensures that if you perform at that level, and are already a known red-ball cricketer as Rahul was then, national white ball honours are easily accessible. The 2016 edition of the Indian Premier League gave Rahul just opportunity. He was involved in a star-studded Royal Challengers Bangalore side which consisted of Virat Kohli, AB De Villiers, Chris Gayle and Shane Watson. To play with such talent in front of a home crowd brought the best out of Rahul as he amassed 397 runs, finishing as RCB’s third highest run-getter in a season which ended in heartbreaking fashion as RCB’s title run was clamped in the final.

But the major turning point in his white-ball career was in 2018 when he was bought by the Punjab Kings (formerly known as Kings XI Punjab). He began his tenure up North in scintillating fashion as he blasted a half-century off 14 balls and mustered three scores of 90+ in the 2018 season. In 2019, he composed his maiden IPL century off 64 balls at the Wankhede in one of the classic IPL games as Pollard stole Rahul’s limelight with a blinder of his own to take Mumbai over the line.

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In 2020, Rahul was named captain of the franchise, the added responsibility allowed him to push himself as he finished with 676 runs at an average of 55, with one hundred, and finished as the highest run-getter of the competition. In 2021, this form continued as he scored 626 runs, finishing as the third highest run-scorer. This IPL form has also translated into form for India. Rahul became a regular in the Indian side post-2018 as he stepped up to open for the side due to Shikhar Dhawan’s injury in the World Cup. Rahul played crucial knocks in the 2019 tournament, one of them being in the prized and heavily anticipated India vs Pakistan clash in Manchester as Rahul played a foil to Sharma, scoring a crucial 57.

Later on in that tournament, Rahul would get his first world cup century against Sri Lanka. His major strength as a white-ball player is his versatility which he has shown throughout his journey to the top, while he is a guarantee and must open in the T20 format, however, due to India’s array of options in the 50 over format, Rahul bats in the middle order at 4. This position also didn’t faze him as he showed in the 2021 home ODI series against England scoring a classy century.

Rahul’s white-ball glory did seem to come at a cost though. His balance and poise at the crease in the red-ball arena seemed to fade away. He struggled in consecutive away tours of South Africa, England and Australia and his resulted in Rahul being dropped from the Test side for over a year.

Matured Overseas Test Opener and Leader

Rahul’s work ethic has always been a constant and his failure in the Test arena post-2016 only inspired him to fix the flaws in his technique. He has admitted he was “in the worst spot of his life and had started hating cricket” but to rediscover his love of the game Rahul took a journey away from the city of Bangalore with a group of cricketing friends for 10 days as they trained in remote cricket facilities and helped Rahul fix his problems.

The sessions away from the limelight of the NCA helped Rahul understand the problem- his balance at the crease was off which left him susceptible to the inswinger and outside the off stump, he would push too hard at the ball. Within 10 days, Rahul had fallen in love with the game and as he did in his childhood, through sheer hard work and hours of practice, his balance and class at the crease was back.

Luck plays a part in most cricketing careers. It did for Rahul at the age of 12 as Rahul Dravid scouted him, it also did for Rahul in the away tour to England in 2021- as much as he would’ve hated to replace his childhood friend Mayank Agarwal, Rahul knew it was a great opportunity. The focus and determination was seen in the first Test where Rahul composed a classy 80 where most other batters in the Test match struggled.

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The sign that he was back to his best, or something close to it, came in the following match, Rahul at the home of cricket played one of the most composed innings by a Test opener in English conditions as he looked almost unbeatable, scoring a superb century to register his name on the honour board.

Rahul’s ability to make the most of his opportunity, saw him as a regular in the Indian Test side now as he opened for India at Centurion on Boxing Day in 2021. Rahul, as Rahul tends to do, batted with patience, determination and class. He boxed himself out and left anything outside his eye line, while also punishing every bad ball available on his way to the one of the best knocks by an Indian opener in South Africa.

A few days later, Rahul was named captain for the ODI series in South Africa, while he would be permanent vice-captain when Rohit Sharma returns from injury. As fate would have it, yesterday Rahul became the 34th player to lead India in Test Match Cricket as he took over the reins from injured Virat Kohli. The boy from Mangalore had become the Indian captain at the highest level, that too under the coaching of Rahul Dravid. Cricket takes you in circles.

He started proceedings as captain by registering the only 50 in the innings as India battled to 202 on a difficult pitch. That has left India facing an uphill battle to come away with victory, in the match and the series, but Rahul is quite familiar with uphill battles. Don’t be surprised if he wins this one too.

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