Rahul as Keeper: Walking a Tight Rope of Team Balance & Exhaustion
When a wicket-keeper goes unnoticed in a match, he knows he has done a fine job. The best compliment for a gloveman is not to be called sensational or exceptional – but clean or tidy. In the ODI series against Australia, KL Rahul has done just that.
Not for a moment did Rahul let one feel the absence of regular keeper Rishabh Pant. In fact, it was quite the opposite as, often, in India's home season, Pant has dropped an odd catch, missed a stumping, let off an overthrow, or just been messy behind the stumps in general.
There were no jerks, no tentativeness; only a smooth gather, and the bails were off in a flash.
Calm Behind The Wickets
With the Decision Review System as well – a recent addition to the job description of the modern wicket-keeper and far more significant than perceived – Rahul has been right on the money. This is not only to do with his sharp reading of the game but also his calm demeanour. He isn't your cliched easily-excitable, ever-appealing keeper.
As all this played out, it was hard to stop oneself from wondering – can't Rahul be the permanent option in while-ball cricket? This would solve many of India's major troubles in LOIs and open newer avenues. Not only would the team be able to play an extra batsman with him fitting into a dual role, but the bowling would also be bolstered.
With an extra specialist batsman, India can play Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav together. They can also consider playing two all-rounders in Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja, once Pandya gains full fitness.
It's welcome that skipper Virat Kohli, who's notorious for chopping and changing too much and too often, also sees the merit in Rahul, the keeper.
“Rahul really brings in a good balance to keep that well and bat that well in that position. It’s just that he’s come into that slot and has done well. We’ll have to persist with that a little bit and see where that takes us and not necessarily be confused about the other options that we have. I think lack of clarity in terms of positions in the past has really hurt us,” Kohli said after India’s series victory in Bengaluru.
Will Rahul Keeping Affect His Batting?
The million dollar question then is – how severely will it impact his batting returns? It is good news that Rahul, despite donning the gloves for Karnataka in the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy, did a brilliant job with the bat, scoring at an average of over 50 and a strike rate of 155 plus.
In the last edition of the IPL as well, when Rahul kept the wickets for Kings XI Punjab in the absence of regular wicket-keeper Nicholas Pooran, he ended as the second-highest scorer, with an average of 53.90 and a strike rate of 135.
Keeping in T20s is still fine but the 50-over format is expected to take a serious toll on Rahul’s body – a body with a history of breaking down repeatedly.
He played classy knocks of 47 and 80 in Mumbai and Rajkot respectively, but both times India batted first and hence, the wicket-keeping workload did not affect his batting that much.
Is one reading too much into a one-off case? Only time will tell.
The good thing though, is that Rahul also kept for his state side in the 50-over domestic competition – the Vijay Hazare trophy – and opened the batting as well. That did not seem to have any impact on his batting, as Rahul was the 3rd highest scorer of the tournament, plundering runs at over 65.
Not Feasible to Keep and Open?
That said, keeping and opening the batting at the same time, on a regular basis, would be too much to ask for from a fragile body. If India is looking at this as a full-time option – which they currently are – Rahul will have to be pushed down to No. 4 or 5. This inadvertently also allows Shikhar Dhawan (fitness permitting) to continue opening the batting with Rohit Sharma.
Interestingly, the 52-ball 80-run game-changing knock that Rahul played at No. 5 in Rajkot came at a strike rate of 153.84. Prior to that, the last time an Indian batsman scored 50+ at a strike rate of over 150 batting at No. 5 or lower while batting first, was in 2013, when Dhoni struck 62 off 38 deliveries against Australia.
Courtesy of Rahul's whirlwind 54 off 31 balls in the death overs, India clobbered 91 runs in the last 10 overs of the 2nd ODI. On the contrary, Australia managed only 69 while losing five wickets. This is where the game was won and lost.
Another notable thing is that, Rahul did not seem out of place against any of the Aussie bowlers. Not even against a Mitchell Starc shooting yorkers at 145 kph. Instead, in fact, he took him for 26 off 13 balls with proper cricketing shots all around the park. A batsman with pedigree in the middle order instead of one with a singular area of expertise – either a grafter or a slogger – is the way to go for Team India.
Rahul vs Rahul
Hailing from the same state and carrying the same name, it is obvious for KL Rahul to draw comparisons with one of the greats of the game, Rahul Dravid, who took on a similar role in the beginning of the century and benefited the team immensely.
Rahul, who was initially not too keen on taking on the role, ultimately ended up doing a mighty fine job, claiming 71 catches and affecting 13 stumpings in 73 ODIs. In this role, Dravid also excelled as a batsman, scoring at 44.23 as opposed to his ODI career average of 39.16.
Despite playing List A and top-flight cricket as a pure batsman, the 27-year-old, owing to his role of a regular keeper in age-group cricket, has a sound technique and strong fundamentals. Rahul, the golden goose of Indian cricket, is hence, well-equipped to take on the additional role.
Team India would do well with a constant supply of the eggs of the golden goose. What they need to avoid, is killing it at once.
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