If they lose in Mumbai tonight, Kings XI Punjab will be staring at elimination, after a season that began with six wins in their first nine matches. It’s also been a campaign that’s seen KL Rahul score 558 runs at a terrific strike-rate of 161.73. That Chris Gayle (350) and Karun Nair (247) apart, no other Punjab batsman has scored even 150 runs tells you a little bit about his value to a side that wasn’t given much chance of contending for a playoff spot.
His two seasons in Hyderabad with Sunrisers gave few hints of his potential as a Twenty20 player. It was only when he moved back to Bangalore and smashed 397 runs at a strike-rate of 146.49 that people began to consider the possibility that India might have stumbled across another all-format batsman. In that 2016 season, Royal Challengers came agonizingly close to glory.
They’ve been a million miles away since. Rahul’s loss to injury – he hurt his shoulder while batting heroically in the Tests against Australia – was a major factor in their 2017 slump, and there were more than a few murmurs of surprise when the franchise retained Sarfaraz Khan and not him for the 2018 season.
Of course, we’re not privy to the wheels within wheels that decide Indian Premier League (IPL) contracts. A player like Rahul may well have thought he’d be worth more in the auction than Bangalore were prepared to stump up to retain him.
Either way, it’s had calamitous consequences for a team that hasn’t threatened the top of the table all season. On the flip side, Rahul’s displays have pitchforked him back into the Indian white-ball teams after a topsy-turvy few months.
Being an all-format player isn’t easy. Yuvraj Singh was the catalyst behind India falling in love with the T20 format, and the fulcrum of the World Cup-winning side in 2011. But his Test career never kept pace, though he won 40 caps over a decade.
Suresh Raina had similar experiences. Integral to India’s white-ball successes for a long time, he never cracked the Test code. Rohit Sharma, one of very few with multiple hundreds in each format, looks like he may be going down the same road. As much time as the team management is prepared to give him, the Test runs haven’t come, especially away from home. And the signs are that the selectors have finally run out of patience.
Rahul, like Virat Kohli – the only Indian to straddle each of the three forms with panache – has a game grooved to succeed. He has a way to go to match his international captain’s consistency across formats, but the basics are sound enough for him not to have to tinker much. Even when Rahul scores at two runs a ball in T20s, he does so more often than not with orthodox cricket strokes. He can play the reverse sweep and the cute dinks but looks his best while playing through extra cover.
In other ways, Rahul couldn’t be more different from Kohli. Right from the time he was a teenager, the cameras zoomed in on Kohli’s every expression and gesture. Some shy away from the spotlight. He seemed to revel in it. Like many of his teammates, Rahul too is intricately inked. But in the same way that Mohsin Hamid wrote of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Rahul brings to mind the Reluctant Tattooed Man.
I can’t claim to know him, but I watched him once for an hour in a swimming pool, as he was recovering from the shoulder surgery last year. Soft-spoken and unobtrusive, he was more Rahul Dravid than Kohli. Even as some of his mates horsed around, Rahul went quietly about his exercises and laps, drawing almost no attention to himself.
A generation ago, Dravid donned the big gloves and played vital knocks with the bat as India reached a World Cup final. There’s little doubt now that MS Dhoni will keep for India at the 2019 World Cup, but this stunning IPL foray has shown that Rahul is right at the front of the group aiming to succeed him. And like his captain in the Indian team, he has the potential to master every format he plays. There aren’t many like that.