The stop-and-start show of the show stopper
KL Rahul's comeback-ability has never been in question. That he now is seen as an asset by Kohli and team is a step in the right direction.
As someone with the least amount of interest in Football, the world's fascination with 'dabs' fascinates me. Quite in contrast to the more popular celebrations of high-fives and chest-bumps, a 'dab' doesn't require someone else's presence for you to perform it. You take one arm up and roll it over your face as if you've just blushed for the most inexplicable reason while the other arm points at something which you, at that moment, can barely see.
It looks stupid on the cricket field, as most of the fads running around social media do, but has been popularized by some of the sport's more popular children, who have earned a pedestal high enough to endorse a dance-form for celebration.
Hence, when KL Rahul sprinted like Imran Tahir and dabbed after Upul Tharanga nestled one in between the Indian's abdomen and the box, I couldn't help but laugh. His captain, Virat Kohli, who backs his players -- and especially Rahul -- in almost everything they do, followed the suit, and what transpired thereafter spoke more about how the 25-year-old opening batsman has gone about his days than about the 'news-worthy' gesture which by now would have been smeared across social media.
There's no denying the fact that Rahul already is a show-stopper. That his own show has been stopped and stop-gapped more often than not has not, in fact, stolen the limelight away from him but has put it back on. When Rahul doesn't play, there are talks of which reserve opener would have to make room once he returns. When Rahul returns, there are talks about how he couldn't convert the fifty into a hundred.
Amongst all the Indian cricketers I have followed, Rahul has come across as the only one who doesn't shy away from speaking about his problems in the open. He acknowledges that his body has been tough on him to a large extent and that 'anything could happen' at any moment.
"I am still very nervous. The body is still very unsure and it keeps holding me back every time. That's the biggest challenge coming back from injury. You know that you are physically fit and you have done everything that you can, worked really hard, you are feeling stronger, you are feeling fitter. But the mind always tells you what if it happens again, what if you have to go through the same grind for three months, what if your shoulder is not ready, what if you [have] come back early?," Rahul had said at the beginning of the Sri Lanka tour, after having scored a half century against Sri Lanka Board President's XI.
Little did he know, perhaps, that the unsure body would take ill days before the Test and that he would miss one more match -- one more to add to the already-existing long list of missed Tests.
But that's what makes him so appealing, isn't it? As appealing as he was when he hit his maiden Test hundred in Sydney more than two years ago. And that was after faltering and hitting-out on debut at the MCG. The comeback-ability of the man had never been in question thenceforth.
Therefore, it wasn't much of a surprise that Rahul played the way he did in Colombo and became only the third Indian batsman to have six or more consecutive 50+ scores. But numbers certainly are the last thing on his mind.
"I’ve never chased numbers, firstly. My job as an opening batsman is to give the team a good start, lay a solid foundation and I think I’ve done that so far. Disappointing that I have not been able to convert that, but I think that will keep me more hungry," he says at the end of the first day in Colombo.
It was this hunger, perhaps, that made him go where no Indian batsman had ever gone before in Florida, chasing 246 off 20 overs on a highway of a surface. That the knock of 110* is the highest-ever by an Indian in T20 internationals would probably have skipped his mind by now. That he remained stranded at the other end when the team needed nine of the last six wouldn't have.
The prelude to this knock was laid two months in advance when Rahul became the first Indian to score a hundred on ODI debut -- and so far the only one to do so -- which I assume would not have mattered as much as finishing that game off.
"Obviously with good performances in the last couple of months the confidence is there and I always knew I had the game and I had the skill-sets to be successful in all the three formats. It was just about getting opportunities, a few good games and the confidence in myself and the belief in me to go out there and know that I can perform well at any level in any format," he had said after the debut.
The prelude to this ODI debut was laid in the IPL 2016, to be honest, wherein Rahul's show-stopping endeavours were overshadowed by his captain at the RCB. 397 runs at 44.11 while striking at 146 were overshadowed by someone who had an inhumane season.
This was after he was overlooked for the limited-overs series in Australia in January last year and was benched throughout the home Tests against South Africa in the December that preceded.
Sandwiched somewhere in between these knocks in the coloured clothing was his 158 in Kingston, which was, in fact, his first Test innings after a gap of 13 months. The comeback-ability, as I have already mentioned, is beyond questioning.
If you back-track a little more, you'd recall his hundred in Colombo, almost exactly a year ago, and realize that life has come a full circle in these two years. These 24 months have seen two coaches, two captains, two ICC tournaments -- of which Rahul wasn't a part -- and seven opening batsmen for India, but Rahul, despite his absence more than presence, has been the favourite.
"It gives you confidence that the team is backing you, the team trusts you, is waiting for you to come back and that makes a big difference; I come back with lot more confidence. I can walk into the team with ease in my head. There is no pressure of me losing my position, which is great. The captain and coaches have always given me that support which has played a big role in my small career so far," Rahul's words after his comeback innings spoke of how highly he is rated by the team, especially for someone so prone to injuries.
Kohli calls him a 'champion player' and went to the extent of making an exception to the unsaid rule being followed by the team -- of picking players in the eleven in the order in which they were picked in the squad -- by benching Mukund instead of Dhawan to make way for who he felt would create more impact on the match.
"It is very important to make him (Rahul) feel that this is his spot and it won't be changed because of unfortunate events that happen outside the field, or the injuries you have no control over. That's the phase when you have to come back stronger and he's really stuck it out in that phase. It has been hard for him, we all know that," Kohli had said on the eve of the Test.
"So it's very important to make him feel secure because he has been giving us big performances in the past. He's a guy who needs to be backed, and I as a captain and the team management back him 100%," the captain added.
Rahul has a hundred in all three formats of the game, something that only two other Indians have achieved in their careers, has 100% backing of the captain -- who now leads the side in all formats -- and to top all of that the man backs these claims with performances.
At 25 years of age, Rahul has had shoulder injuries, hamstring injuries, and finger injuries, and while that may not make for a very good start, his stats despite all of that are telling enough.
Take this for information: Since Rahul's debut, India have played 30 Tests out of which he's featured in 18, while being unavailable for 7 Tests and dropped for the remaining five. An 18-12 record would speak of either poor stats, poor fitness or both.
Now, take this for another piece: In 17 Tests prior to Colombo, he averaged 44.44 with 4 centuries and 7 half-centuries. He averages 55 and 56 in ODIs and T20I, although those are numbers from 8 and 6 matches, respectively. But, given for how long he has been around the circuit and how many matches he's missed, one should assume that he's made the most of whatever opportunities he's earned for himself.
He almost scored a double hundred in Chennai against England but that was overshadowed by his Karnataka teammate Karun Nair, who made certainty out of the almost and went a hundred runs further.
Since the 199 in Chennai, he has scores of 2, 10, 64, 10, 90, 51, 67, 60, and 51* until before the Sri Lanka tour, in what has been his longest streak (7 Tests since the Mumbai Test against England in December) without sitting out of the side.
In the era of specialized professionals, it is hard to find an all-formats campaigner, and Rahul is only the second India batsman to have done well in all formats after his captain, Kohli. That he is backed to the extent that he is augurs well for the team that has had selection issues not just within the team, but outside as well.
Rahul would most certainly get injured again, and he would, with a greater degree of certainty make a comeback only to prove that if he gets injured again, the team mustn't lose faith. While it seems to be an infinite loop of inevitability, the show-stoppers such as the 110* in Florida, 110 in Sydney, and 90 in Bengaluru should make the wait worth the effort.