ICC World Cup 2019: KL Rahul aces audition for number 4

There are good premonitions and there are bad premonitions, both of which would’ve tugged at KL Rahul as he walked out to bat at the Sophia Gardens here on Tuesday. The devil seated on one shoulder would’ve reminded him that this is perhaps his last chance to find a place in India’s starting eleven for the World Cup; and, also, just how he had blown his opportunity during the first warm-up game at the Oval three days earlier.

Handed his chance in Vijay Shankar’s absence against New Zealand, Rahul (who was picked as a back-up opener in Virat Kohli’s World Cup squad) had walked in at number four, played the stroke of the day (square drive to the fence) and two balls later was out bowled, played on. Today, the wicket that caused his entry into the middle was that of Rohit Sharma’s, who too had channelled back the ball on to his stumps. For Rahul, this of course would’ve made for an inauspicious entry.


The angel on the other shoulder, however, would’ve told him that it was he who was walking in at number four, again, this time despite Shankar’s presence in the team against Bangladesh. In the final tune-up fixture before the opening game against South Africa, this ought to have been a reassuring sign for a man who has played only one (official) ODI this year, a total of three in 2018 and all of 14 since his debut in the format in 2016.

The conditions waiting for Rahul were not too dissimilar to conditions presented to him in London—a pitch that was sweating under a cover overnight, thick clouds in the sky and rain in the air. And here too, he nearly perished before he could even get started; once again, the mode of dismissal would’ve been played on. The ball from Rubel Hossain in the 17th over was short of good length and darted into him a pinch, which Rahul tried to cut but nearly ended up chopping it on. Nearly. The edge fell inside the batting crease and somehow squirted safely over the bails.

Rahul may have hoped to find his touch away from the scrutiny and in the shadow of his batting partner, Virat Kohli; but that, too, hastily came undone. An over after the drinks break, Kohli was bowled and in walked Shankar at number five. This, now, was officially an audition, and the Cardiff pitch the stage. But the difference in their range, to use an acting term, and skill-sets was exposed in the space of the last three balls of the 22nd over.

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Rubel, who had found his short-ball rhythm in his spell thus far, bounced Rahul. At least he tried to. The moment it was pitched short, Rahul swivelled on the fat toe of his right foot and pulled the arriving ball in front of square for four majestic runs. A single next ball, played with soft hands, gave Shankar the strike, whose presence inspired Rubel to bend his back again. A short of a length ball climbed on Shankar, who in turn tried to drive it on the rise with unmoving feet. The thick edge was held by the ‘keeper, Shankar’s innings ended on 2 and the onus was now on Rahul to put to rest the No.4 debate that had bothered India till the doorstep of a new World Cup. (Note: Shankar didn’t inspire too much confidence during his five overs with the ball either, with Mushfiqur Rahim especially severe on him and his economy rate. But once Rahim fell for 90, Bangladesh’s chase folded too, failing India’s 359 by a fair distance.)

Surviving the try-out ostensibly seemed to have a positive effect on Rahul, for he soon tore out of his cocoon. Rahul belongs to that rare breed of batsmen who have suffered for being able to play every stroke in the book. Often, in the same innings, he tries to play them all and this has been the primary culprit of both his brilliance and his downfall. Such players tend to shelve certain shots to break out of a rough patch. Not Rahul, who showed his captain, and the team management, that he too can be relied upon to find the best stroke-option for each ball he faces.

That assuredness, in mind and hands, solved India’s No.4 problem at the eleventh hour. It also produced 108 runs of the highest quality. The over after Shankar was dismissed, the 23rd, Rahul cut medium-fast Abu Jayed, who had bowled a length ball, for four through point. Jayed decided to go fuller, so he was driven past his shuffling feet for four more. Shakib Al Hasan was brought into the attack to rein Rahul in. The first ball that he bowled had to be replaced, for Rahul had bent a knee and walloped it where it couldn’t be found, presumably the river Taff.

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Rahul cut and Rahul drove, along the carpet and safely in the air, and when he pulled and he hooked the ball was often returned from the stands. All of his glory occurred in the presence of MS Dhoni, and possibly even because of it. But Rahul’s freedom soon rubbed off on Dhoni too, who clobbered seven sixes in his century, which, he brought up with a six too. Dhoni was in an attacking bent of mind from the get-go, quite like the Dhoni of old who was quite prone to cracking his way to a lower-order hundred.

The second ball Dhoni faced he drove through the covers for four and he was on his way. The off-spinner Mehidy Hasan was his first six-victim; then the other offie Mosaddek Hossain got the treatment; soon enough, Dhoni was unleashing his bottom hand, and connecting, against even the pacers. The hundred was Dhoni’s first in the format in over two-and-a-half years, ensuring he will feel far more confident going into the World Cup. And not the least because he is now certain of who he will be batting behind at number five.

First Published:
May 29, 2019 09:04 IST

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