Determined KL Rahul makes memorable return to Manchester
KL Rahul scored a patient 57 against Pakistan at World Cup. (AFP Image)

MANCHESTER: Roughly a year ago, KL Rahul seemed to have taken a giant step towards cementing his place in India’s limited-overs setup. His cracking century against England in a T20I in Manchester had made a chase of 160 look relatively easy.

It was a hundred that as per his admission meant the world to him. He had been in limited-overs set up for over two years and hadn’t capitalised on his potential. That century not only gave India a win over England. It also was supposed to mark the arrival of KL Rahul, the limited-overs player.

But instead, a poor Test series against England a month later, Rahul found himself in the same quandary, trying to figure out his role in the Indian team across all formats. He was no longer guaranteed a place in the Test squad either, and his appearances remained limited in coloured clothing.

Then came yet another setback, perhaps the most gut-wrenching of the lot, when Rahul was banned by the BCCI for his loose comments on a talk show, putting his World Cup berth in serious jeopardy. In short, the world around Rahul was crumbling. ALSO READ: Ruthless India crush Pakistan to maintain unbeaten World Cup streak

No one has quite experienced the term roller-coaster ride like Rahul, as cliched as it may sound. Five months removed from the ban, Rahul is now an India opener, at least for a few games, at the World Cup. Rahul, picked in India’s 15-member World Cup squad as a backup, is now part of the top-three. The injury to Shikhar Dhawan meant that he was Rohit Sharma’s partner at the top. And his first big assignment, in that role was the biggest match of them all – India vs Pakistan.

When the World Cup was in its warm-up stage, Rahul was emerging as a strong contender for the No. 4 spot. With the century he scored in the absence of Vijay Shankar, Rahul staked his claim for that spot. But how quickly do things change in cricket? Pushed back up, the India vs Pakistan contest was quite the challenge for Rahul, a test he aced on the big-match day. ALSO READ: Idea was to not lose wickets and build platform – Rohit Sharma

On Sunday, batting at a position he is most familiar with, Rahul played the perfect second-fiddle to a demolition derby led by Rohit Sharma at the other end. From the moment Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed won the toss and opted to bowl, Rahul took first strike to Mohammad Amir, coming off a five-wicket-haul against Australia. Two years ago, Rahul did not face Amir when he ripped through India’s top three in the Champions Trophy final. And on Sunday, he gave a glimpse of how different things could have been had Rahul been there at Lord’s.

Rahul and Rohit Sharma added 136 runs for the opening wicket for India. (AFP Image)

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since. Here, Pakistan, with their new bowlers, were going for the kill. But Rahul soaked the pressure like the ideal foam. There’s been a certain pattern to India’s batting in the first pattern recently – to play out a few overs initially and go for it once set. Using that practice as a gauge, Rahul began cautiously, well aware of the situation that beckoned.

Initially quiet, Rahul played himself in while Rohit took Hasan Ali on at the other end. Despite shouldering arms to 11 balls, more than all batsmen put together from either side. Opening for the first time together, there was a bit of miscommunication as both nearly ran themselves out. But crucially, both survived. More for Rahul because he was finally getting more than those frustrating 20s and 30s he’s been scoring for India so frequently.

Rahul moved to 14 off 31 but once Pakistan brought on spinners from both ends – Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan – Rahul switched gears. He confidently played the paddle sweep, cut and the lofted drive on the off, a shot in particular he makes look ridiculously easy.

When he loosely drove Wahab Riaz to Babar Azam at point, almost an identical dismissal to the one against South Africa, for a split second, Rahul stood there are probably replayed that shot quite a few times in his head. Scoring 57 in a partnership of 136 is not bad, but walking off the field shaking his head in disbelief demonstrates Rahul’s frustration and missing out on a daddy hundred. Like always, Rahul will learn and move forward.

In three weeks, scoring a century from No. 4 to a patient, gritty fifty as an opener. Rahul’s fortunes have swung the entire arc. He has been shuffled in the line-up more than Usman Khawaja for Australia, but in a crunch, high-pressure game, Rahul had come out strong.

After India’s match against New Zealand was washed out, batting coach Sanjay Bangar, while stressing on Rahul’s role, underlined how the batsman can look back at his namesake, Rahul Dravid, for inspiration. Dravid’s versatility as a wicketkeeper and a floater under Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy helped India maintain balance in ODIs which is exactly what Bangar expects from Rahul in the current limited-overs setup.

As batsman, Rahul has all the tools. And on Sunday, he may have taken his first big step towards better, strong and much more promising second-coming. Plenty has changed between Rahul’s previous appearance at the Old Trafford and the one on Sunday against Pakistan. The next time he comes to the venue, Rahul would envision himself being a much more concrete part of the Indian team… and hopefully not spilling an easy catch.