What does KL Rahul need to do to take the next step?

“He’s been doing the same thing for as long as I can remember, since the time he started playing cricket. This is what he’s been doing, performing consistently. No matter what conditions, what wicket conditions, who the bowlers are, he always finds a way to get runs, always finds a way to put the bowlers under pressure.”

That is KL Rahul offering his two-cent’s worth on Virat Kohli. After India’s win against West Indies in Manchester, where the India captain finished with the top score to grab his first man-of-the-match award in this World Cup, Rahul was asked why Kohli is so successful as a batsman.

As he expanded on how Kohli does what Kohli does, which it seemed was nothing out of the ordinary, it is possible a thought might have passed Rahul’s mind: “Why can’t I do the same?”

Yes, why can’t you, Rahul?

It is by accident that Rahul became Rohit Sharma’s opening partner at the World Cup, after Shikhar Dhawan was ruled out. Three times he has opened and all three times he has got a start. Yet, he has failed to make an impact. In his own words, he has “disappointed” himself.

In those three matches, Rahul’s scores are 57 (78 balls), 30 (53) and 48 (64), against Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Indies respectively. His 136-run partnership with Rohit in the first match in which they walked out together, was the backbone of India’s winning total against Pakistan. Rahul was then involved in two 50-plus stands with Kohli. So why is he disappointed? The job of the opener is to set a platform, and wherever possible convert the starts. It is at this conversion that Rahul has faltered.

Let us go through the numbers. In the first segment of his innings, the first 20 balls, Rahul has scored 30 runs at a strike rate of 50 with a dot-ball percentage of 70. In the next 20-ball segment (21-40), he has 45 runs from 60 balls at a strike rate of 75 and dot-ball percentage of 56.7. You would expect him to accelerate from there, but that is where Rahul has stuttered and stumbled, and got out. In the next segment (41-60) Rahul’s scoring rate has dipped, with him scoring 36 runs from 53 balls at a strike rate of 67.92 and dot-ball percentage of 50.9. And, on the two occasions where he has managed to bat 60-plus balls, Rahul has flattered to deceive: 24 runs from 22 balls at a strike rate of 109.09 and dot-ball percentage of 54.5. Among openers that have, on average, stayed at the crease for more than 10 overs, Rahul’s average (45) and strike rate (69.2) are the poorest.

For the sake of comparison, let us look at Rohit once he settles down. Rohit, by his own admission, has found comfort through slow beginnings. But once he is settled, Rohit accelerates so quickly that he ends up scoring big runs, massive hundreds.

In the 41-60-ball segment, Rohit has scored 49 runs from 60 balls at a strike rate of 81.67 with a dot-ball percentage of 45. That comes down to 40 once Rohit plays 60-plus deliveries, while his strike rate spikes to 112. 24 – he has scored 165 runs from 147 balls so far in this segment. Incidentally, Rahul’s balls-per-boundary figure is 7.33, which is similar to Rohit’s 7.34, yet he has got out just when he has started to score smoothly.

Take that reverse sweep that he attempted off Mohammad Nabi, which resulted in a wicket that was against the run of play. Rahul had worked hard to deny Afghanistan any advantage after Mujeeb Ur Rahman had sent Rohit back in the fifth over of India’s innings. The Southampton pitch was slow and the Afghanistan bowlers were smart to slow down the pace, making batting difficult. Yet Rahul and Kohli were steadily taking strides towards a big partnership. And then Rahul suddenly reverse swept straight to the fielder at short third-man in the 15th over.

Rahul tried to explain the thought process behind the shot. “That is what is the most difficult thing about batting, isn’t it. One, you might look like you’re not in any trouble for 100-120 balls, or 50-60 balls, and then sometimes you end up making a mistake,” he said in Manchester, after the win against West Indies. “Afghanistan was… I wouldn’t say it was a bad shot. It was a shot I play all the time. And more often than not I hit it for four, so I get it away.

“But, unfortunately, I didn’t execute it. But the planning and the timing of that shot maybe was questionable, because I needed to stitch up a partnership with Virat. And, like I said, again, bat 30-odd overs and then look to accelerate. So these are the things that maybe I’ve done wrong in the few games.”

So Rahul does understand how his impulsive decision-making can have a domino effect on the middle-order. It breaks the momentum and places undue pressure on Kohli, who then has to press the reset button with a new batsman, which means more overs are chewed up, thus placing a bigger burden on the lower order.

Although he admits to his shortcomins, Rahul has made it clear that he will not “break his head” thinking about what he did wrong or not. Fair enough. In fact, perhaps Rahul’s biggest challenge is to free his mind.

Even when he answers a question, Rahul takes a moment to reflect. He seems to bring the same contemplation to his batting. If you observe him at training, you can sense Rahul is trying to find something elusive, chasing something that he feels has not yet clicked. Often he bats twice during training sessions. Often you see him getting words of motivation from head coach Ravi Shastri and assistant coach Sanjay Bangar.

Maybe Rahul needs to unshackle himself and play with a free mind. Opening is often the most difficult time to bat. Yet, Rahul has said he is happiest when he opens. He just needs to play more naturally once he is through with the opening act.

We’re talking about the batsman who has smashed the IPL’s fastest ever half-century. He has two T20I centuries to his name. Rahul can be an impact player in a short space of time, and he knows it.

So to go back to the question Rahul might have asked himself: what does he need to do to be consistent like Kohli? Just relax, believe, and free his mind, perhaps.

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