At Centurion, Rahul finds his finest touch | Crickit

At Centurion, Rahul finds his finest touch

Dec 28, 2023 08:29 AM IST

His seventh away ton, out of eight he has overall, rekindles hope of a new dawn for his Test career

There's something about KL Rahul. Well, there always has been.

India's batsman KL Rahul kisses his helmet after reaching a century during the second day of the Test cricket match between South Africa and India(AP)
India's batsman KL Rahul kisses his helmet after reaching a century during the second day of the Test cricket match between South Africa and India(AP)

Anyone who has seen the right-hander, who is now 31, bat on his good days cannot but walk away impressed. The poise at the wicket, the array of strokes, the ability to read the match situation and to counterattack. He has it all.

But Rahul's problem (and perhaps India's too) is that between those good days have been plenty of ordinary ones; the kind that make you wonder whether he is doing justice to his sublime talent; the kind that made you want to move on.

But every once in a while, Rahul reminds us of all that he can be. He tempts the non-believers and gets them over to his side. Wednesday and most of Tuesday saw him stitch together an innings of such quality that even considering the thought of an India team without him seems like one that went beyond mere fallacy.

His 101 off 137 balls was what India desperately needed. Despite a cagey start to the innings on Tuesday, he took the opportunities to hit 14 fours and 4 sixes.

Yet, if Rishabh Pant had been fit, there might have been no space for Rahul the batter in this playing XI. Jaiswal has announced himself as opener. Gill deserves a chance. Iyer has been delivering.

It was a reality he had brought upon himself. In 2018, he averaged just 22.28 in 22 innings. In 2019, he averaged 22.00 in 5 innings. In 2021, he found his game and averaged 46.10. But then in 2022, he was back to his old self -- averaging 17.12. Earlier this year, in the series against Australia, he averaged 12.66. Good days followed by many ordinary ones.

A thigh injury he picked up in the 2023 IPL season kept him out of action for a long while but when he returned in September, he seemed a different player, particularly from the mental point of view.

“It was quite strange this time. The other times that I’ve had surgery or injuries, I have found myself really being bored, not knowing what to do or not having any motivation to wake up and go and do physio," Rahul told in September. “It’s really boring, frustrating, and you get really lazy after a point of time. But this time it didn’t happen... I always found the motivation to go and do the boring stuff, this period of being away from the game, to just not really be desperate about anything. I just wanted to enjoy the process of even doing physio, something as boring as physio, which is not as rewarding as playing a game of cricket, but I try to enjoy. I think that made it really easy.”

The resync seemed to help on the cricket field as well. Since return from injury, in 19 innings across formats, the 31-year-old has averaged 75.3. His record in ODIs has been splendid in 2023 (1,060 runs @ 66.25) and maybe the confidence is overflowing into his Test game too.

“We've known about his talent for such a long time," Sunil Gavaskar said on Tuesday just after Rahul got to his fifty at Centurion. "Ever since he's come back from this horrific injury that he had in the IPL, it's a different Rahul. It's a Rahul we have been yearning to see for such a long time."

For Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul's approach -- in difficult conditions -- stood out.

"What impressed me was his clarity of thought," Tendulkar said on X. "His footwork looked precise and assured, and that happens when a batter is thinking right. This century is crucial in the context of this Test."

In the past, Rahul often seemed to be battling the ghosts of his own expectations. But now he looks calmer, more in control and less in need to prove himself. That moment on Day 1 when Marco Jansen, after being hit for six, let rip into Rahul was a ready reckoner of the new Rahul. He just smiled and got on with things.

Even when wickets kept falling, Rahul stayed the course, put on 72 runs in his partnerships with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj and Prasidh Krishna and finally got to his finest Test century with a six.

He was dismissed soon after but his seventh away ton (out of eight he has overall, six have come outside Asia) rekindles hope of a new dawn for his Test career. It won't be for the first time but maybe he'll finally give India the best version of himself.

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