"If we’d have contributed a little better, then the game could have gone the other way." According to Rahul Tripathi, this was the unanimous sentiment in the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) dressing room after they fell short by 18 runs against the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) on April 21.
Chasing 221 on a belter of a Wankhede track, KKR found themselves tottering at 31 for 5. But Andre Russell, Dinesh Karthik and Pat Cummins almost pulled off an extraordinary coup. Russell smashed 54 off 22 balls, Karthik played the perfect second fiddle with a 24-ball 40, and an unlikely saviour in Cummins grabbed eyeballs and finished with an unbeaten 66 off 34 balls.
“If we would have finished that game and won that game, then it would have been one of the greatest chases,” Rahul Tripathi said.
Well, in all fairness, that summed up KKR’s performance in the now-curtailed IPL 2021. Eoin Morgan’s boys languished in seventh position – with just 2 wins from 7 games – when the league came to a halt on May 4.
A solid opening combination, Morgan’s astute captaincy, a lethal bowling line-up and a world-class middle order – everything pointed towards success. But the team and its players couldn’t live up to the expectations leveled at them at the start of the tournament. KKR failed to bridge the gap between raw materials and final product in what turned out to be a campaign of ‘ifs’ and ‘could haves’ for them.
But amidst all the chopping and changing, the constant shuffles in the batting order, the disappointment and the tension, there seemed to be a constant factor. Not just by his place in the side but also by his performances, with the former an automatic by-product of the latter. 30-year-old Rahul Tripathi made the No. 3 position in the KKR playing XI his own.
Nitish Rana might have been KKR’s highest run-getter at the halfway mark with 201 runs under his belt. But Rahul Tripathi’s 187-run aggregate helped his side bridge the gap between a misfiring top order and an unsettled middle order. And most importantly, those runs came at a higher strike rate than both the openers’.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Rahul Tripathi revealed that KKR head coach Brendon McCullum wanted him to play an aggressive brand of cricket while not bothering much about the wickets column.
“You could say that a little bit of aggressiveness. Our coach McCullum wanted us to play a particular brand of cricket, my role was to keep up the strike rate and keep the run rate going. That role was given to me this year, and I was happy to have executed that in two to three games and would have liked to continue,” Rahul Tripathi said.
The Maharashtra lad maintained a strike rate of 135.50, while Nitish Rana and Shubman Gill scored at 122.56 and 117.85 respectively. You don’t expect these numbers from the opening batters of a side coached by Brendon McCullum and captained by Eoin Morgan, both of whom have revolutionised the art of white-ball batting (read hitting).
While KKR received a lot of flak for being slow off the blocks throughout, Rahul Tripathi opined otherwise. In fact, he praised the opening duo for negating the threat of the new ball and faster bowlers early on.
“No, not exactly, I think they also batted very well. There were just a few games where the conditions and wicket were a little difficult, but otherwise their batting was absolutely fine. In fact you could say the other way round, they played out the main bowlers and then I got the opportunity to score runs,” Rahul Tripathi stated.
The batters after Rahul Tripathi were also in the news for the wrong reasons. They were constantly shuffled around in the line-up, and Tripathi batted with a new partner in almost all seven matches. Did that imbalance have any bearing on the otherwise stable No. 3?
“To be fair, no. Because I don’t think somebody coming up the order or down changes my role. I think we have such a great middle-order that you feel that you always need to keep scoring at a good pace in order to keep up with the strike-rates of Dinesh Karthik and Andre Russell," said Rahul Tripathi.
“It shouldn’t be like we’re scoring slowly because those guys can score 50 runs off 20 balls every day, and they attack from the word go, so we always try to make sure they aren’t left with less balls. So that’s one thing you always keep pushing yourself to do,” Rahul Tripathi added.
KKR tried out as many as three different batsmen in each of the No. 4 and No. 5 slots across the seven matches. There was a frequent change of hands at the No. 6 and 7 positions as well, between Russell and Karthik. However, refuting claims of any instability, Rahul Tripathi hailed the flexibility of the middle order.
“I feel, in our team, we are all flexible to do that. It got highlighted when we could not get the desired results in one or two games. But I feel if the situation demands a particular guy to come out, and if the coach and the captain also think along the same lines, then it’s great,” Rahul Tripathi reasoned.
A conglomeration of all the aforementioned issues seemed to get to Brendon McCullum after KKR suffered their fifth loss. The two-time champions fell to the Delhi Capitals (DC) by seven wickets in what eventually turned out to be their last outing. The former New Zealand captain wore a stern look on his face at the post-match presser, and said “If you can’t change men, change the men”.
Whether he hinted at tinkering with the opening combination or going down the SunRisers Hyderabad (SRH) route of changing captaincy, we may never know. Because the subsequent game against the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) was called off due to COVID-19 cases, before it led to the immediate suspension of the entire IPL a day later.
Rahul Tripathi cleared the air around McCullum’s statement and said it came out in the heat of the moment. He added that there wasn't a vexed mood in the camp, nor any talk of change in the lead-up to the RCB encounter.
“I don’t think McCullum meant those words. We had a few practice sessions after that, it wasn’t like he was completely angry with us. The most important thing was he believed in us, obviously some results were not going according to plan and we weren’t doing some things correctly, so he just wanted to correct that," Rahul Tripathi told Sportskeeda.
“That’s it, other than that there was no discussion regarding any change, we were working hard as a group and what we could do better to win further games was the only goal and that was the only discussion happening,” he added.
If the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) doesn’t allow its players to participate in the second half of IPL 202 owing to national commitments, it’ll be intriguing to see how McCullum operates without his captain.
How Abhishek Nayar and Brendon McCullum have inspired Rahul Tripathi
Dinesh Karthik went more than seven years without getting a place in India’s T20 side. In the 50-over format, he had to ride two three-year hiatuses before becoming a regular member of the setup. And he has always been very vocal about the contribution of Abhishek Nayar to his revival.
Now the assistant coach of KKR, Nayar is in charge of the academy and thus has many DK-esque protégés under him. Rahul Tripathi is one of them, and he was quick to admit Nayar’s mentorship isn’t just limited to cricket. The former Mumbai all-rounder takes care of both the physical and mental aspects, while also engaging in friendly banter with everyone.
“The bond started at the KKR academy before the start of the 2020 season. Abhishek dada is someone who really inspires you and pushes you to become better, he pushes you mentally while also telling how to improve your game. He gives you the inputs, whatever you require, and then practising with him for hours on the ground, what all changes should be done and how to implement those," Rahul Tripathi elaborated.
“There’s a lot of fun part also while doing gym work with him. Everybody looks up to him, he is always there if anybody wants to have a chat and he is always telling us what he is thinking about the game. And even after a game, we go to him, talk to him, discuss what we should have done – we all have a great connection with him,” he continued.
Now about Brendon McCullum. Among the several reasons behind the IPL’s success, McCullum holds a special place for making the league an instant hit. His unbeaten 158 off 73 balls on the opening night in 2008 got everyone glued to the TV. Young Rahul Tripathi was also impressed by how the then KKR opener nonchalantly charged down the track, especially to the speedsters.
Rahul Tripathi has since tried to include those shots in his arsenal, and it only helped his cause when his idol was appointed head coach of the Knight Riders at the start of IPL 2020. Tripathi expressed excitement about learning the tricks of the trade from the Kiwi great, while also showering praise on him for always backing his players to play the way they want to.
“I used to watch games as a child and the way he used to step out to the fast bowlers. I think he was one of the few persons who started that trend and did it consistently, he used to do it a lot during the IPL. So yes, it has been like a learning curve for me as to how I can attack the fast bowlers. And then he has also given me a lot of confidence in executing these shots," Rahul Tripathi explained.
“Whenever I have not done well, he comes and backs me to do well and keep performing for the team. So I think he’s been great, he has believed in me, and most importantly, he has given me the freedom to play the way I want. There have been one or two times when I didn’t play according to the situation, but he still backs me to take the aggressive option,” he emphatically mentioned.
It's not just aggression the CPL 2020-winning coach stands for. McCullum, who inspired New Zealand to their first-ever World Cup final in 2015, is the embodiment of mental toughness. Rahul Tripathi shared an anecdote with Sportskeeda to give an insight into that hard-nosed attitude.
“There was one instance when he was sitting on a chair and then somebody hit a six, and he dived to catch the ball. His mentality is like that, I have learnt from him to always give 100 percent and not think about whether the results will be right,” Rahul Tripathi added in this regard.
But while McCullum landed the CPL title in his very first season with the Trinbago Knight Riders last year, he doesn't have numbers to write home about in Kolkata. KKR missed out on a top-four finish in IPL 2020 and now face a harder task this season.
Close shave with COVID-19
KKR were to play RCB on May 3, but Varun Chakravarthy and Sandeep Warrier testing positive for COVID-19 meant the fixture had to be shelved. The Chennai Super Kings (CSK) duo of Mike Hussey and Lakshmipathy Balaji, the Delhi Capitals’ Amit Mishra and the SunRisers Hyderabad’s Wriddhiman Saha followed suit, along with inconclusive reports of several groundsmen.
The virus had clearly entered the bio-bubbles, and it was on May 4 that BCCI secretary Jay Shah called for the indefinite suspension of the league with immediate effect. Looking back, people have labelled Chakravarthy’s hospital visit for a shoulder scan and the common KKR-DC practice session at the Feroz Shah Kotla as potential breaches.
But Rahul Tripathi feels it was sheer luck, or rather the lack of it - much like how critical the situation is in the entire country. Considering the incubation period of the virus and the togetherness he shared with Chakravarthy, Tripathi was rendered shaken when the news first came in.
“The virus is spreading so badly in our country, so somehow it might have come in and everybody was talking about it. But then we realised we cannot really focus on one thing and can’t be sure that the virus came from a particular place. I was worried myself because Varun and I stay together a lot, we have dinners together. So when he tested positive, we were all shocked and nobody knew how the virus entered our bubble,” Rahul Tripathi revealed.
Rahul Tripathi lauded the KKR family for the urgency shown and eventually the efficiency in limiting the infection to just four members. Be it conducting tests at midnight or the owners themselves looking after the mental health of the players, Tripathi spoke very highly of his franchise.
“We undergo a test every third day. When Varun tested positive, we were all informed and I remember all of us were tested on May 1 midnight. Then everybody was told to stay in their rooms, order food from there, because the symptoms sometimes come pretty late," Rahul Tripathi said.
"After two days, the announcement came that IPL got cancelled and then everybody started heading home. We even had two-three Zoom calls where Shah Rukh sir and Jay Mehta sir came and told us everything will be fine and that they are there for us. Everything went well after that,” he confirmed.
Fast bowler Prasidh Krishna and Kiwi wicketkeeper-batsman Tim Seifert returned positive on May 8. While Krishna had already reached his Bangalore residence, Seifert was initially self-isolating in Ahmedabad before being transferred to a Chennai hospital. He finally left the country on May 18.
Team India flight and the long runway to realising it
Rahul Tripathi was snapped up by KKR for INR 60 lakhs at the IPL 2020 auction. He played 11 games that season and scored 230 runs, but the journey was no less than a rollercoaster ride. Of those 11 outings, Rahul Tripathi opened in five, came in at No. 3 thrice and even played the finisher’s role batting at Nos. 7 and 8.
Again, these frequent changes can render a player unsettled. But good players always try to churn positives out of adversity, and that’s exactly what Rahul Tripathi did.
“I have played two-three IPLs and I have learnt how to go about batting in both the positions. At times in the middle order, I have done well, and at times, I could have done better. But I now believe I can play both the roles and I think it is a plus point in my game that I can adapt to both situations and have that extra edge over others,” Rahul Tripathi told Sportskeeda.
Even if the Maharashtra opener is not yet counted in the same bracket as that of the Virat Kohlis and KL Rahuls, he gets full points for the want of getting there. Rahul Tripathi learnt the demands of top-level cricket the hard way in IPL 2020, and his preparations for the next season included overcoming those very hurdles.
“Sometimes you go straight into the slog overs where you have to hit right from ball one, and then about batting in the top order, it’s about how you learn to clear the infield and keep that run-rate going. You try to get your training as close to the match situation. So there were days where I used to practice as if I was straightaway going into the 15-16th over and I was also batting with the new ball – so yes, I was preparing for both,” Rahul Tripathi added in this regard.
India are now scheduled to play three ODIs and as many T20Is in Sri Lanka starting July 13. That the Test side will be engaged in the series against England means the selectors will inevitably book some newcomers on the flight to the island nation.
Guess what? They can now look at Rahul Tripathi as someone who can blunt the new ball, do damage control at No. 3 and even finish with a flourish at the back end. What's more is that his medium pace can be a handy weapon on the sticky wickets in Sri Lanka.
While his Maharashtra teammate Ruturaj Gaikwad’s name is already in the reckoning, Rahul Tripathi is hoping his flexibility will open the T20I doors for him.
“I also believe I should get the opportunity because I had a good season in the IPL, some less opportunities for Maharashtra – it was an up and down ride – but if I get the opportunity, I can add a great value to the team with my fielding and I can also contribute with the ball. So I think it’ll be great if they take me to play those flexible roles, sometimes in T20s, you need a batsman who can bat at the top of the order and in the middle as well. So if I get the opportunity, it’ll be a great breakthrough in my career,” Rahul Tripathi envisioned.
Rahul Tripathi is also aware that helping his state win silverware is an integral part of catching the attention of selectors. Throwing light on Kedar Jadhav’s maiden national call-up after Maharashtra’s run to the final of the 2013/14 Ranji Trophy, Tripathi acknowledged the importance of scoring big in the biggest of games.
“Maharashtra played the final of the Ranji Trophy in 2013/14 and then Kedar got selected. Last year, we didn’t have a great Mushtaq Ali, but before that I was captain for a few years and we played one final, one semi-final. We were dominating white-ball cricket, we even made the Vijay Hazare semi-finals for two consecutive seasons. So I think it is very important for you to win because when your team wins, you are contributing to the team’s win, and it makes a bigger impact on the selectors," Rahul Tripathi illustrated.
"And most importantly, when you play well in the big games, that is when everybody believes he can perform well in pressure situations. And whenever we play, we just think of how we can win together, so that more of us will get opportunities in the Indian team,” he concluded.
Whether Rahul Tripathi will be with the Indian team for the first time is still uncertain. But what is for certain though, is that KKR have found themselves a man for all seasons and roles, and Maharashtra a skipper hell-bent on leading by example and bringing laurels to the state.
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