Men Of The Year 2016: KL Rahul
The man is defying conventional thinking and excelling at all three formats of cricket.
He averages close to 35 after 10 Tests, which includes three centuries. His ODI average is an admittedly unrealistic 196, after three games, with one century. And his Twenty20 average is not far behind, at 89.5 with one century. Kannaur Lokesh Rahul, at 24, is one of only three Indians with an international hundred in all three formats, and it’s little wonder, then, that MS Dhoni has described him as a “complete cricketer”.
“Sport was always something that came naturally to me,” says Rahul, as we chat in Bengaluru. His father, Lokesh, head of the Department of Civil Engineering in Surathkal, was a college-level cricketer, and it wasn’t long before his family realised that Rahul’s cricketing talent was something that extended beyond the family games enjoyed during the summer vacations at home in Mangalore. Determined to prove that cricket was where his future lay, Rahul moved to Bengaluru when he was 17.
He was part of India’s Under-19 squad for the U-19 World Cup in 2010. The right-handed batsman went on to make his first-class debut for Karnataka against Punjab later that year, and scored a half-century in the second innings. Rather than a single breakthrough performance, Rahul’s career graph has shown a steady growth, right from age-group cricket leading up to his international debut. “I am really happy with the way my career has shaped up so far,” he explains. “I have never achieved tremendous success in one season — I have always had that balance. I had a few years when I did well, I had a few seasons when injuries got me, so I have learnt to value the place that I am in and to never waste the opportunities that I have been given.”
It had looked like Rahul hadn’t made the most of his Test debut, though, with a forgettable outing in the Boxing Day Test against Australia in Melbourne, in 2014. He was out for 3 and 1, both innings characterised by nerves and dubious shot selection. “I still cannot accept the way I batted in that game, and I still don’t have answers to it,” he says, with a wry smile. “I realised that is how international cricket will be. I may have ticked all the boxes, but I can still fail. It toughened me, and I came back as a much more balanced and confident individual.”
Rahul’s a modern-day anomaly. This is an era where batsmen are expected to flourish in the shorter formats and have a trip-up or two when their temperament and technique are called into question while donning whites. Rahul is, however, the antithesis of that stereotype — or he was, anyway, before his dream run commenced. He wasn’t exactly a Cheteshwar Pujara, slated for Tests and Tests alone; he had shown the skill set and stroke range to be successful across formats. Still, while he followed up a breezy century in Sydney with a poised second Test ton in Sri Lanka, Rahul simply wasn’t hitting his straps (or the ball, for that matter) in the IPL — two seasons with Sunrisers Hyderabad brought few results of note. His strike-rate was poor by T20 standards, and before long, opinions about him began heading the Pujara way. Rahul was suddenly earmarked as a Test specialist, and many actually lauded him for being one.
“His basics were always strong, it was just a matter of time before everything would click [in the shorter formats],” says Samuel Jayaraj Muthu, who, along with P Devdas Nayak, started coaching Rahul when he was 11, at the Academy in Mangalore. “We would make him bat at both ends: when Rahul scored, the team would win.” According to Jayaraj, the seeds of Rahul’s transformation were sown during his time at the Sunrisers, when he started playing alongside David Warner, and his maturity as a batsman came to the fore during the 2016 IPL, with the Royal Challengers Bangalore, for whom he made 397 runs from 14 games, with a strike-rate of 146.49. “My performance in the last IPL has given me a lot of belief and confidence,” says Rahul. “I was always someone who had a lot of self-belief, but I was always looking for a way to put that into performance [in the shorter formats], and only when I could do that would the tag of a ‘Test-match player’ go. I believed I had the game, but I needed a couple of good knocks in the shorter format. Since that happened in the IPL, it was a great confidence booster, and I feel that I have become a far better player.”
“I have treated each format as importantly as the other,” he explains. “Each format challenges you dierently, and playing with the likes of AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli, watching Joe Root, Steven Smith, Kane Williamson, has been a tremendous inspiration. People say it’s hard to be consistent in all three formats, but these guys are inspiring. Kohli and de Villiers have also helped me shape my game differently. It all boils down to how simple you keep cricket.” His proficiency in all three formats is also the result of a single-minded dedication to improving his game. While most young men of his age would be out partying, the 16-year old Rahul would spend his time at the nets, from dawn to dusk. “He was always very punctual,” recollects Jayaraj, a note of pride creeping into his voice, “even as an 11-year old. And very systematic.” Rahul credits his coaches for honing his basics. “I believe that is when a cricketer needs to put in the hours, that is when your body adapts to whatever you teach it. I have grown in an era when you need to have a range of shots to be successful, or the opposition sorts you out. That is when I started working on all the shots: the reverse-sweeps, the scoops.” He also made a few minor technical adjustments to his batting, according to Jayaraj, particularly the initial movement, allowing him to get into position quickly.
Fitness also played a key role in his transformation. “As a 16-17 year old, I was skinny and didn’t feel confident to clear the field. As I started attending national camps, spending more time at the NCA, and with the qualified trainers who were entering the system, I realised the importance of fitness. Once you are physically stronger, you feel more confident to take on the bowlers and fielders. As you are able to do that more and more, it increases your confidence. It’s a cycle.”
Another key factor has been a mental adjustment. Rahul has been guilty of complicating his thought process while playing the shorter formats, something he consciously worked on simplifying. “I have realised that the less you complicate things, the more results you will get,” he says. “There has been a small change in the thought process. Earlier, I would think defence first and then if the ball is there to be hit for four, I would do that. Now I try to hit the ball for four first, and then if it is not in my area, I will try to defend. This has made a big difference. At the same time, I also realise when it isn’t my day. Then I switch back to defence first, get the hang of the wicket, rotate the strike, and once I get 10-15 runs, I get the confidence and switch back to aggression. I have not been shy to step back and play second fiddle, and give the bowler the respect he deserves.” It took an unfortunate injury during the India-New Zealand test series to derail his dream run, but there is enough cricket coming up for Rahul to get right back to where he was.
“I always used to have some doubts early in the innings. It gives me a lot of confidence if I am able to defend the first couple of balls that I play really well. It tells me that my body is in the right position, my feet are moving in the right direction, my bat is coming down straight — it doesn’t matter if I get a run or not, these technical things give me a lot of confidence. Then I can start playing my shots. I have understood this about my game; the pattern and process of getting runs and what works for me best. I’ve been consistent in all the three formats, and that’s what I want to do as a cricketer, to be consistent in all the three formats. Go out there and play to the best of my abilities, and play my roles and responsibilities for the team,”
As his batting has undergone a transformation, so has the way he looks. From long locks to braids to a man bun, Rahul has sported a variety of hairstyles over the years. As he posted on his Instagram feed: “My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.” They tell the story of a young man who is not afraid to express his individuality, of his desire to be recognised as a personality in his own right rather than solely as a cricketer, of someone who is able to understand and express himself and is comfortable in his own skin — just as he has started donning a number of different garbs on the cricket field, and looking comfortable and convincing in all of them.