Striking it right: KL Rahul walks the talk
The Indian opener scored at a strike-rate of 157 on Tuesday in the powerplay - his highest in the last two years and had a dot ball percentage of 35 - his second lowest during this period to get India off to a great start.
KL Rahul got slightly uncomfortable, asked for clarity, put up a brave face and then talked at length about his strike rate issues. He revealed that he had taken the first step - acknowledging that his scoring rate is indeed a concern - and had started to work on it. A day later, when it mattered, he walked the talk. The irony is, it literally started with a little walk in the third over of the first T20I against Australia.
After bowling a pretty decent first over with no boundaries, Josh Hazlewood, in the first delivery of his second over, did what was expected of him - bowled a length ball just outside off-stump trying to search for swing. If Rahul had also done the expected, it would have resulted in a single at best. But he didn't. He took a couple of quick steps toward the off-stump, negated whatever little chances of swing the ball might have had and trusted the true nature of the Mohali pitch and his wrists. Both didn't let him down as Rahul shovelled the ball deep into the IS Bindra Stadium stands in the square-leg region.
The look on Hazlewood's face was of a mixture of admiration and bewilderment. Rahul had shown intent and banked on premeditation, something which had nearly vanished from his T20I game. Since January 2021, in 17 T20I innings, 98 of Rahul's 216 deliveries in the powerplay were dot balls. His dot ball percentage of 45.4 in the first six overs is one of the highest among openers in world cricket in the current year. The problem, however, was deeper than what the numbers suggested.
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In the Asia Cup group stage match against the weakest team of the tournament, Hong Kong, half of Rahul's 20 deliveries in the powerplay were dot balls. There was just one attacking shot that he tried or maybe he was forced to as it was a free hit. The Lucknow Super Giants captain had a strike rate of 113 and a dot ball percentage of 43.28 during the field restrictions in the Asia Cup.
All these seemed a distant past in front of a jam-packed Mohali stadium on Tuesday. The Rahul that forced Shikhar Dhawan out of the T20I XI mainly due to his attacking instincts at the top was back. If that six off Hazlewood was an indication, the attempted heave in the same over immediately after captain Rohit Sharma's dismissal was confirmation of Rahul's attacking intentions. It was anything but classy - the ball took a leading edge and raced away to the third man boundary but the message from Rahul was loud and clear.
"It's T20 cricket, batting first or batting second, you have to be aggressive, you have to be in a mindset to score. When batting first, If I go to open, I try to give myself three or four balls to understand how the pitch is behaving and then try and see how I can put the bowlers under pressure, utilise the powerplay and get your team off to a good start," Rahul said.
He did exactly that. Rahul scored at a strike rate of 157 on Tuesday in the powerplay - his highest in the last two years and had a dot ball percentage of 35 - his second lowest during this period to get India off to a great start.
His below-par returns in the last few T20Is perhaps had a lot to do with his fitness. The opener had to miss out on the home series against South Africa and then the entire England and West Indies tours due to injuries. "Having played a couple of series after injury, I'm starting to get that confidence back in my body. If you ask any player, the toughest thing is to control your own mind and to tell yourself 'your body is fine you won't get injured when you drive, or when you sprint, that only when you play a few games," he added.
Rahul hit a couple of towering sixes more, got to his fifty, and even became the third fastest in the world to get to 2000 T20I runs (in 58 innings) behind Babar Azam (52) and Virat Kohli (56). Just when he was looking to take the game away from Australia, he holed out in the deep for 55 off 35 balls while trying to hit another one of those flicks for a six. But Rahul's power-packed return was one of the highlights of the series opener and if he can hold the thought, India will feel much better about their World Cup chances.