Right from the time KL Rahul crashed onto the international scene, his immaculate technical ability, range of shorts and overall batting genius have always been lauded. It was widely believed that he would become the next batting torchbearer for the Indian team. However, his talent never quite manifested like it was expected.
Initially, after having two blockbuster domestic seasons wherein he scored 1000+ runs, Rahul craved his place in the Test side as an opener. In the 2015 Sydney Test, which was only his second, he scored a gallant 110 against a fierce Australian bowling lineup to start his international career on a bright note.
Rahul's ship sailed steadily in the Test arena until 2017. He had already scored 1428 runs, including 4 centuries and 10 half centuries, at a healthy batting average of 43.2.
However, over the next couple of years, Rahul struggled in the away series against South Africa, England, Australia and West Indies and also in the home series against West Indies. He scored a mere 574 runs in this period at a very poor average of 22.07. His overall average also depleted to a mediocre 33.9, and he eventually lost his place to his good friend Mayank Agarwal.
In ODIs, despite beginning with a century on debut against Zimbabwe in 2016, Rahul was not able to stabilize his position until the 2019 ODI World Cup. But even though he scored 361 runs in nine matches at an average of 45.1 in the World Cup, there was still something stopping him from reaching his full potential.
He was not his fluent self in the World Cup and often got out in a situation that would leave his side in a spot of bother. Consequently, he was dropped from the playing XI in the West Indies series that followed the mega event.
The T20 format has been the only one where Rahul has consistently repaid the enormous faith that the selectors have shown in him. In 38 T20Is he has scored 1461 runs, including two centuries, at a very high average of 45.7 and a sturdy strike rate of 146.2.
Lately, there has been a steep improvement in Rahul's consistency in white ball cricket. Not only is he scoring runs at a better clip, but he has also become more mature and responsible.
After getting dropped from the Test squad and the ODI playing XI, Rahul, like a diligent student of the game, put his head down and played regular domestic cricket. He proved vital for Karnataka in both the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2019-20 and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 2019-20.
Rahul scored 598 runs at an average of 66.44 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and 331 runs at an average of 52.16 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Taking one step back, in the longer run, assisted him in getting two steps forward. Going back to his roots, coupled with the desire to wear the prestigious blue jersey again, aided his process of maturing.
Having salvaged his previously lost confidence, Rahul again found his mojo and made a dazzling comeback.
This 2.0 version of KL Rahul seems to comprehend his role in the team better, while also showcasing an acute sense of responsibility. It looks like he has grasped that he can no longer remain the kid in the team. He was always believed to be someone who had the potential to be a leader within the team, and now he has started playing like one.
An injury to Shikhar Dhawan opened the gate for his return in the 2019 T20 series against the Windies in India. His blistering display of 164 runs from 3 matches, coupled with the persistence of Dhawan’s injury, allowed him to also open the innings in the ODI series that followed the T20Is.
Rahul's newfound consistency was again on display in this series. He ended with a tally of 185 runs from 3 matches, which included a sparkling knock of 102.
Against Sri Lanka in the home T20 series, Rahul was nearly unstoppable. He was the leading run getter in the series and clearly the biggest asset in the lineup.
Dhawan’s return from injury and Rahul’s continued brilliance posed difficult questions for the captain and the selectors. Efforts were made to include Rohit Sharma, Rahul and Dhawan in the team, and even the world’s best number 3 in ODIs sacrificed his position to that end.
Even though the experiment didn’t work, the selectors kept trying other ways to inculcate Rahul into the team. His versatility and ability to keep wickets were capitalized on; Rahul was asked to replace Rishabh Pant as the wicketkeeper and play the role of the finisher.
His crucial knock of 80 off just 52 balls at the back end of the innings against Australia in the second ODI did more than enough to cement his position in this new role.
Virat Kohli was full of praise for his new wicketkeeper after that game. “When you see how KL was batting today, it's very difficult to leave someone like that out. Batting at No. 5 and batting like that for the team; this is probably the best he's played at international level. That knocked showed maturity and class," Kohli said at the post match presentation ceremony.
His ability to keep wickets and play down the order could be the answer that the team has been looking for. It would enhance the balance of the team, create space for playing an extra all-rounder and stabilize the turbulent middle order.
Rahul broke the world record for most runs in a bilateral T20 series by scoring 224 runs in 5 matches at an average of 56 against New Zealand in their home conditions. He has truly taken the next step of his international career and become a pillar of consistency.
At least in limited overs cricket, Rahul's place in the team is now indisputable. It must be said that sometimes returning to your roots can help you in speeding up your progress.