KL Lokesh Rahul India England 2018
KL Rahul in the T20I series © Getty Images

A stunning run of form in this year’s IPL has propelled KL Rahul back into India’s ODI squad, and the coming weeks promise to be decisive in his limited-overs journey — potentially even taking him all the way to next year’s ICC Cricket World Cup and beyond. On Thursday at Trent Bridge, India will face the top-ranked ODI team in the first of three matches as a prelude to the marquee five-Test series that starts in August. Rahul, now 26, has virtually walked into India’s lineup for the first ODI after scoring 70, 101*, 6 and 19 in 4 T20 Internationals on the tour of the UK, that scintillating century pushing him to third spot in the ICC rankings for T20I batsmen.

Rahul amassed 659 runs in 14 matches for Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2018, striking at 158.4 and making 6 half-centuries, the first of which was the tournament record fastest off just 17 balls. Before the IPL began, Rahul spoke about his desire to change impressions of being a “Test player”; 13 innings later, he bowed out of the tournament with 659 runs at a superb strike-rate and average, having hit 6 half-centuries in all. Rahul crossed 20 in all but two innings, and his form was directly related to KXIP staying in contention for the play-offs until their last match. He was reliable behind the stumps too, effecting 11 dismissals.

Such form for KXIP, opening the innings and hitting the ball with a crispness and ferocity, proved irresistible for the BCCI selectors.

Now, as the Indian cricket team led by Virat Kohli prepares to engage in 3 ODIs with England in the same environs in which next year’s World Cup will be played, Rahul has a terrific opportunity to create a spot for himself in the middle order. With Ajinkya Rahane dropped from India’s ODI squad, Kedar Jadhav injured and Manish Pandey unable to hold down a spot, there is a definite opening. It is with that awareness that Rahul, who has so far featured in 10 ODIs, will hope to step out on July 12 at Trent Bridge and make a mark.

Rahul’s reputation in limited-overs cricket is of a smash-bang batsman who sets a platform and then, critically, builds on it. But the template hasn’t translated into sustained success in ODIs, even considering that he has not been a first-choice pick. After scoring an unbeaten 100 on ODI debut, and adding 33 and 63* in that low-key series in Zimbabwe, Rahul’s returns trailed off with innings of 8, 5, 11, 4, 17 and 7. The last of those scores came when he was in a funk, successful in Tests and T20Is but unsure of his place in ODIs. In three innings against Sri Lanka last August, he batted at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 and struggled against spin.

But now, with IPL and T20I form to his credit and the backing of Kohli and Ravi Shastri, Rahul stands on the cusp of becoming India’s breakthrough player in ODIs.

Success in England, where India will open its World Cup campaign next summer on June 5 against South Africa, will no doubt be valued highly. Rahul has shown the English audience what he can do, clattering 10 fours and 5 sixes during his 54-ball century in the first T20I last week. Channelling that form into this short ODI series will be imperative for him, and he has arguably never been in a better space as an international batsman.

One of just three Indian cricketers to complete the trifecta of centuries across all formats of the game — the others being Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma — Rahul’s game is compact and he boasts an area of strokes, none prettier than that push between extra-cover and mid-off. Strong off his pads and through the off-side, he has this year started to reveal an ability to improvise. And he’s quick on the pull, which was on ample display during his century at Old Trafford. On small English grounds with dry pitches as the domestic season enters its last phase, Rahul can expect to cash in if the seamers err in length again.

The image of Rahul celebrating his electric century against England last week stands out, for it clearly meant a lot as he pumped his first and jumped for joy. “I haven’t chased anything this much, with so much heart and passion,” he said after accepting the Man-of-the-Match award.

Rahul also happens to be chasing a World Cup spot, and has a terrific chance to mount a strong case to be considered for next summer’s extravaganza.