When the bat and ball meet as eager participants of a first date, time seems to slow down to enjoy itself a little more. The air smells sweet, the dreariness of life fades away a little. One cannot help but ‘ahh!’ one’s way to ecstasy. Not that it happens regularly, but when it does, it appears to be a match made in heaven. It surely is more than the Indian media’s and the fans’ benchmark of greatness. So, what does that make the chap who made the bat do that to the ball? Surely, at least ‘great’, if not something more pompous, except, that he still manages to evade this adulation, more than it does him.
In Kohli’s India, both bravado and cricketing abilities make a reasonable player. There is neither space for self-doubt or meekness nor for the lack of effort and intent. The skipper himself hurtles down this road, tournament after tournament, every season, so the players have no way to excuse themselves. This has made this squad a very different one from those of yesteryears. Each player has had to rise to the occasion and re-write what his best means, regularly. Here, in this pile of victories, accomplishments, improvements, we find a man, often saddled with an inexplicable weight, taking stance, fidgeting, talking to himself and pensive. The bat is not sure, the feet get heavy and the ball, too big to be handled decently. The same chap that just recently played an innings studded with sparkling strokes, would now be painting a glum image of himself, while attempting to do his job. One is left to wonder what the truth is, is it this stutter and stall or that fluency and panache?
It is in the undefined that we find K L Rahul. He leaves us with far too many contrasting shades for one to have any expectation as he takes guard and he has gone on this way for long. Too often, he has come out, woefully out of touch as if he were thrust onto the pitch after years of staying away from the game. The disappointment is only heightened by the potential he possesses and what he can be even if a small part of that could translate into consistency. In what is possibly Indian cricket’s most dominant team to date, the space for occasional brilliance is shrinking at a rapid pace. Individual brilliance is being overshadowed by collective capability and consistency and as a natural outcome, winning has become a habit for this team.
Why would such a setup wait and watch for a bolt of magic or an hour of cavalier batsmanship in an otherwise inconsistent run, when those that are making their debuts themselves are doing so on the back of years of consistent toil in the domestic circuit and replicating it on the international stage? Of course, there is always a special talent, for whom the system should be allowed to be more kind, as the player is getting settled and finding form, but it must be noted that the Indian cricket machine has transformed from one that arbitrarily found a diamond in the dirt to that which systematically churns out batches of cricketers, ready to play the big game and the highest level. This is the same model which the Australians of the 90s and the 2000s created, where even players as brilliant as Michael Hussey had to wait until their 30s to break into the national side. When surrounded by such order and predictability, Rahul’s frequent trysts with poor form appear too pale to ignore.
What could Rahul’s issues be? How does he manage to fall off so dramatically after finally having found form? Technically, he is as sound a batsman as there is in the team, but his demons seem to be seated in his mind. On a normal day, Rahul takes guard rather edgily, worried about too many things and trying to get many more of them correct. What could have been a case of reacting to the ball has bulged into a pre-flight checklist of sorts. This re-runs at each delivery. A very draining exercise, to put it mildly! Batting is no doubt built on technique and skill, but it is equally based on temperament and instinct. This is a fine balance between the mind and body and at its best is a cohesion and culmination. Veering too much onto one side is akin to falling over to a full and incoming delivery. What but an LBW can be the most possible outcome?
After a bout of incoherent attempts at beginning an innings, Rahul threw his shackles away and walked in to bat at the Oval, in the last test of that tour. The result was for everyone to see. While he did survive a few chances and went after everything that he faced, it was refreshing to see him play without the burden of being technically correct nor the fear of failure. He seemed like nothing mattered anymore, except seeing the ball and playing it joyfully. The match and the series were gone anyway, but he found the courage to bat his heart out, without fear or inhibition. He could have resurrected his career from there, but he went back to seek the fetters yet again.
Being on top of one’s game is momentary feeling. An edge, a breach of defence, a brute of a delivery can be enough to shatter it. That is why the best batsmen have always spoken of looking at just one ball each time. They have demonstrated how they shut off the noise as they take guard and dive into the moment, become one with it and eventually become the moment itself. Their careers have been a collection of such moments, ball after ball, innings after innings. It is this strength to breathe easy and not get bogged down by the expectation or the challenge that sets the greats apart from the rest.
In the hour of power and muscle, his strokeplay when unfurled soothes the eye and elevates the game to appeal to our finest senses. But the sooner he fixes the issue with how he sees his role and what he should do when taking guard, the better will his chances be of truly delivering to his full ability. His batting is as beautiful and classy as the city of Bengaluru. It shouldn’t stutter and choke like its traffic.
For the love of cricket, let’s hope it doesn’t.
-Himamshu, 17 Nov 2019