KL Rahul keeps kicking at his batting crease. It’s littered with dust. Once he has appeased his inner neat freak, he begins his pre-ball routine. There’s a pull of the right pad. An adjustment of the helmet. Couple twirls of his bat. And then he gets into his stance like he’s slipping into some flip-flops. One foot after the other. Right in front of middle stump.
Now that is a sign of a batter who wants to be on top of the ball at all times, and so he was. For 41.5 overs on the second day of the Test match in Hyderabad, there was no better spectacle than the man who walked out at No. 4 for India. Talk about keeping up traditions.
Rahul made 86 runs on a turning pitch at a strike rate of 70. There were few signs of overt aggression. He was simply making the very best decisions and profiting off them more often than not. Certainly a fair bit more than his team-mates. Another storied No. 4 tradition.
It all began with where he positioned himself. On Thursday, Jonny Bairstow had stood on leg stump to India’s left-arm spinners. Batters do that to manipulate the line of the bowler, and Bairstow managed to cut balls that were coming in with the angle from around the wicket. Standing on leg stump also helps the batter avoid lbw – a constant risk against the ball going with the arm.
Rahul predominantly stood on middle stump, probably because he has a lot of trust in his defence. From there it was all about reacting to the ball coming at him; all about his training and muscle memory and an incredible gift for judging length.
In the 55th over, which was around the time the pitch was throwing up some uneven bounce, Rehan Ahmed got one to skid through low. Rahul was on the back foot and if his response had been anything less than absolutely perfect, he would have been bowled. Initially, he was going for the cut, because he does that, he loves to cut balls that are meant to hit the top of off stump. Then he realised he couldn’t afford a horizontal bat shot and played an almost straight-bat slice through point and it went for four.
Rahul would have had less than a split second to make all of those calls and he almost always made the right one. First, his footwork. The moment a ball pitched even on the shorter side of the good-length area, he was ready to use the depth of the crease in whatever way he needed to to open up scoring options. Some of his team-mates – and more than a few England batters – were dismissed by balls like this because they’d simply pushed forward even though there was no hope of their getting to the pitch of the delivery.
Then the hand-eye coordination. It isn’t easy to shift from one shot to another in the time between the ball pitching and arriving at the crease. In scientific terms, that’s less than diddly-squat. This was a stroke of genius. Another India No. 4 did something similar to another England legspinner seven years ago.
In all, Rahul went back to 43 balls as per ESPNcricinfo’s data, and nailed 38 runs at a strike rate of 88 with four fours and a massive six.
These included his back-foot returns against Mark Wood, who did his best to try and break his air of invulnerability with a four-over spell during which the speed gun seemed stuck at 150kph. Once again Rahul’s decision-making blunted the threat. Short balls aimed at the back shoulder were left alone, because going after them might have brought in the fly slip, or the gully or the man about three-fourths of the way to the backward square leg boundary. Short balls ending up down leg, on the other hand, were karate-chopped – not pulled, karate chopped, with the bat going up in the backlift and then coming down on top of the ball. Hi-yah!
England put pressure on Shubman Gill because his only release seemed to be the big shot. He was going block, block, boom. Rahul, meanwhile, was ever so adept at shifting his body either inside or outside the line of the ball to bring his wrists into play and find the gaps through all the funky fields that Ben Stokes set. He respected England’s bowling when the length was good – 15 off 50 balls – but went at nearly a run a ball – 71 off 73 – when they pitched either side of that band. None of their plans worked against him. Until that long hop.
India never looked vulnerable while Rahul was at the crease. It was the consequence of a batter simply trusting his instincts and backing his strengths. There was a time in his Test career, not too long ago, when all he seemed capable of doing was second-guess himself. That KL Rahul looks a distant, fast-fading memory.
In an interaction during the 2023 World Cup, Rahul asked the singer Dua Lipa what number she’d wear on her jersey and explained his choice. “I wear No. 1 because its a mindset thing.” He’s one of the few – perhaps the only – international cricketers with that number on their back. Because its such an easy target for critics and he’s had a lot of them over the years. Some of his century celebrations in limited-overs matches – the forefinger of each hand stuck in his ears – were aimed at them. However, he marked his most recent three-figure score – an intense innings in South Africa on comeback after a 10-month hiatus – with a mostly calm raise of the bat. It’s a sign that he’s at peace. With himself and Test cricket.