“There is a reason you stay with KL Rahul and that’s because he can play shots like these,” said commentator Harsha Bhogle after the Indian opener whipped Bangladesh seamer, Shoriful Islam, for a six over mid-wicket in the ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2022 match between both nations in Adelaide on Wednesday, 2 November.
Rahul went on to make a fifty off just 32 balls, his first in the ongoing World Cup as India recorded a five-win victory over their neighbours in a thrilling contest to top the Group 2 table with six points.
The 30-year-old batter’s knock arrived at the most crucial of junctures as a victory would almost secure a spot for India in the semi-finals.
Not just for India, the knock was vital for Rahul as well, with cries for his ouster from the side gaining prevalence online. The batter had undergone extreme criticism and hate on social media platforms following his terrible start to the tournament.
Backed By Team Management
Rahul had registered scores of 4, 9, and 9 in his previous three matches in the World Cup and this did not go down well with a section of Indian fans who were frustrated with the opener’s below-par displays at the top of the order.
Players receiving online backlash is not uncommon. Almost two months back, Rahul’s teammate, Arshdeep Singh was subjected to online abuse for dropping a catch in a crucial Asia Cup 2022 tie against Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan emerged victorious even worsened the situation.
Despite all the negative attention, Indian skipper Rohit Sharma, head coach Rahul Dravid, and the team management stuck with Arshdeep, and it proved to be a masterstroke of a decision.
He is now India’s highest wicket-taker in the T20 World Cup and the fourth joint-highest in the tournament so far.
On a similar note, India opted to persist with Rahul as their first-choice opener and the move paid dividends in Adelaide.
He shut down his critics with three fours and four sixes - the most (sixes) by any player from both sides. And following his knock, Rahul did not shy away from offering gratitude to his captain and team management.
"Whether we do well or don't do well, we always stay balanced, and the support staff have been really supportive. The captain always backed his players and you can see that. That's why players always, even if we've had a couple of tough innings, we find a way to come back and do well for the team," Rahul said in the post-match press conference.
Unlike Arshdeep, however, Rahul is not a new entrant in the Indian side and has played many match-winning knocks in the past.
Seasoned T20 Campaigner
A veteran with 70 caps and 2209 runs to his name, Rahul is one of the more seasoned campaigners in the Indian T20I side in terms of experience, and experience counts heavily in major tournaments, like a World Cup for instance.
To date, Rahul has played nine T20 World Cup games and has 266 runs to his name, including four fifties. The T20 World Cup in Australia is the second in his career after the UAE one last year, where he finished as India’s highest run scorer with 194 runs from five matches.
Considering his displays last time around, it was a no-brainer that Rahul found a spot for himself in the ICC event Down Under. Moreover, unlike many other top-order batters in the current squad, he has prior experience of playing in Australian conditions.
The Karnataka batter has featured 10 times in T20Is for the men in blue in Australia. Only Virat Kohli (15) and Rohit Sharma (13) have played more matches than him there as top order batters from the current World Cup squad.
Though the campaign did not commence as he would have envisaged, he surely proved his capabilities by scoring a fifty against Bangladesh. As Rahul mentioned, he was just waiting for that one knock to get things going. Not even for once did he doubt his abilities despite misfiring with the bat.
"I knew that in my heart that I was seeing the ball well. Whatever I need to do, my processes were right. So I knew the good knock or good contribution for the team was coming," said Rahul in the post-match press conference.
Is the Strike Rate Debate Warranted?
Meanwhile, there has been immense debate surrounding Rahul’s strike rate in T20Is over the past couple of months. Both fans and pundits have questioned his role within the T20I setup over owing to his strike rate.
According to Rahul’s critics, his risk-free approach is outdated, and it has a significant impact on a team’s net run rate. It is indeed true his strike rate has dipped to 124.75 in T20Is this year, but there are a few factors which contributed to this.
Most primarily, Rahul has played just 14 matches this year, missing almost three months due to a sports hernia and COVID-19. It is always difficult to come back after an injury lay-off and set things straight from the word go.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rahul played his first T20I match this year in August – in the Asia Cup, and since then has gone on to score 378 runs, including five fifties. Despite his low scoring rate, Rahul has managed to eke out runs which proves that he is a player for the top stage.
Also, at times in cricket, be it T20Is or other formats, it is necessary to play according to the pitch and conditions, which would invariably affect the player’s scoring pace.
It should not be forgotten that Rahul, despite playing just a few matches this year, performed decently, and as his display against Bangladesh suggested, he is slowly rediscovering his rhythm.
The opener scored at a brisk pace with a strike rate of 156.25 - the second highest among Indian batters behind Suryakumar Yadav (187.50).
Another instance which proves Rahul’s worth within the side is his strike rate in last year’s T20 World Cup. Rahul in fact had the second-best strike rate (152.75) by an Indian in UAE with only Hardik Pandya (153.33) ahead of him.
A proven performer, Rahul has been an indispensable part of India’s T20 setup in the last few years and team management know his worth better than most.
For a cricket-crazy nation, outside noise is not something that will ever cease to exist, and understandably so.
"I was still relaxed. I've always tried to be as balanced as I can as a person. But whether I do well, whether I don't do well, I try to judge myself on whether my mindset is right, and whether I'm trying to do the role and the responsibility that the team expects me to do. If I think I'm doing that well, I can go to sleep peacefully," Rahul said about his thoughts while not being able to score runs.
The noises will go on forever, whether for good or bad, but Rahul will remain unfazed because in his head he is sorted and knows his role all too well within the team.