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T20 World Cup 2022

Can KL Rahul turn back the clock and be the T20I batter fans expect him to be?

Sarah Waris by Sarah Waris
@swaris16 5 minute read

KL Rahul’s struggles in the Asia Cup have raised more questions on his place in the XI. It may not be long before the his T20I career is put on hold, writes Sarah Waris.

Rahul used to be the next big thing in Indian cricket. He was expected to go on and carve out his own niche, particularly in white-ball cricket. A fearless big hitter against every kind of bowling at any stage was exactly what the Indian T20I side needed after they had fielded relatively conservative batters for a number of years.

Rahul made his IPL debut in 2013 but did not have much to write about in his first three seasons of the league, scoring 20, 166 and 142 runs, respectively, with a combined strike rate of 107. However, his timing, as always, was on point when he struck form in 2016, a few weeks after India’s unexpected ouster from the T20 World Cup at home. With the India actively looking for recruits who could take them forward in the coming years, Rahul’s IPL run, where he scored 397 runs at an average of 44.11 and a strike rate of just over 146, naturally caught eyeballs.


Debuts in both ODIs and T20Is followed, and Rahul relished the opportunity. He got an unbeaten 47 in his second game, and a hundred two games later. A 51-ball 110 not out against West Indies in Florida was an exhibition of fine strokeplay, temperament and skill. Though India went down by a solitary run, failing to chase the mammoth target of 246, they gained so much more.

Over the next two years, Rahul was unstoppable. Until the end of 2018, he played 25 T20Is, scoring 782 runs at an average of 43.33 and had an impressive strike rate of 148. There were two hundreds and four other scores in excess of fifty. Not only did he focus on getting big knocks, but he also took risks at the crease. He could mix caution with free-spiritedness, and when it paid off, there was no batter as aesthetic.

Even in the IPL, his stocks rapidly increased. Though he missed the 2017 edition due to an injury, the two years on either side of it helped shaped his career. The 2018 season was arguably the best he ever batted. Only Chris Gayle, in 2012, had scored more runs in an IPL season than Rahul‘s 659 while striking at a rate quicker than Rahul’s 158.

To chart Rahul’s career growth from 2019, we need to go back and analyse how young cricketers in India are taught to approach the game. With unending competition in every stage, the focus, right from the start, has always been to pile on runs in an attempt to stand out. The more runs you score, the more eyeballs you garner. The bigger the player you become, the bigger the responsibility in being the batter for the team – the one who sees the team through, and the one who arrests a collapse by always being around and scoring truckloads of runs.

As the expectations on Rahul grew in franchise cricket – he was one of the faces of Kings XI Punjab – the mindset switched somewhere. He decided to abandon his natural game and assume the role of anchor instead, looking to bat through an innings and stay unbeaten even if the strike rate took a hit. From 2019 to 2022, he made 2,505 runs in the IPL – the most by any player – at an average of 52.56 but a strike rate of 135.

Interestingly, Rahul’s 108 sixes in the last four seasons of the IPL is the most by anyone as well. However, he has also faced 1,862 balls in this period, which is also the most faced by a batter. He faces an average of 33 balls per IPL game (in 56 innings), scoring 44 runs and hitting a six every 17 balls. Thus, on average, he faces over 5.3 overs a game but hits well under two sixes per match. From someone who bats inside the Powerplay, you expect much more.

However, while his struggles piled on in the IPL, he continued to stay away from this agonising way of batting for India. From 2019 to 2020, he faced an average of 28 balls per innings, while scoring 40 runs per outing. His average in this period was 44.71, and a strike rate of 142 indicated that his IPL batting style was not yet encroaching into his form for India.

From 2021, that no longer seems the case. In 16 T20Is – a period that has also seen him miss months of cricket due to injury – he has scored at an average of 28.07 and a strike rate of 128. Though he has five fifties in this period, he also has nine scores below 20 including three ducks, making it a case of all-or-nothing phase.

However, four of these five fifties have come against Afghanistan, Namibia and Scotland – teams ranked 10 or lower as per ICC. His average against teams ranked 10 or lower is 67.75 with a strike rate of 148, which reduces to 13.63 against the top nine sides. His strike rate reads 103 – neither of which guarantees a place in the squad, forget the XI.

Yet Rahul manages to hold on, at least for the time being. Being the vice-captain has enabled him to return to the top of the order despite long weeks of absence due to injury. However, time is running out fast for 30-year-old Rahul. The management has recently not hesitated to drop Rishabh Pant, a player who has not reached his potential in T20Is, from the XI in the Asia Cup. Pant, for context, had led South Africa in the T20Is in June: if he can be axed for below-par showings, it is not long before the spotlight is on Rahul as well.

With Rohit Sharma keen on having his players play more aggressively in the format, runs are unlikely to be enough for anyone. He has to take on a more proactive role, unlike what we have seen from him in the IPL recently. IPL franchises need Rahul as an anchor, but Virat Kohli already plays that role for India, and there is no space for two batters of that genre. To cement a place, Rahul either has to establish himself as an anchor superior to Kohli or bat the way he used to, taking one bowling attack apart after another.

He has shown his class ever so often, but whether he turns back the clock and saves a career that runs the risk of remaining unfulfilled is to be seen.

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