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Asia Cup – KL Rahul: Hadn’t brought my kit to ground because I thought I had to carry drinks against Pakistan

told me you might have to play because Shreyas [Iyer] has a back spasm,” Rahul told official broadcaster Star Sports after he marked his comeback with his sixth ODI hundred in India’s

“At the last minute, our manager had to run to the hotel to get my stuff. Strange things have happened in my career. This isn’t the first time. It has happened earlier too. Mentally I guess I know what to do when I’m thrown into the ring, I give my best. I’m happy such performances happen [when he’s been faced with such situations]. Maybe it’s also a sign that I don’t have to think too much. I can just go out there and enjoy my cricket. That’s the learning for me.”

Rahul was right when he said such things had happened earlier too. One such moment, in 2016, perhaps changed the course of his career. At an IPL game in Rajkot against Gujarat Lions, Rahul wasn’t listed in the XI for Royal Challengers Bangalore at toss time. But ten minutes prior to the start, he was seen rushing off the field to get ready after Mandeep Singh tore the webbing on his left hand. Virat Kohli then asked Suresh Raina, the opposition captain, if they could make a late change.

Rahul responded with a gutsy half-century at No. 4. It was the start of a golden run for him that season. From being a non-starter in the XI, Rahul became a regular as RCB made an inspired run to the final. While Kohli made a chart-topping 973 runs, Rahul contributed heavily too: 397 runs in 12 innings at a strike rate of 146.49. That season dispelled notions of him being a one-format player. In fact, it was also during that season when Rahul made a mark as a wicketkeeper, a role he has grown in over time. He would make his ODI and T20I debut for India soon after the IPL.

This ability to bat in the middle and keep wickets makes him a crucial part of India’s ODI World Cup jigsaw. This is why the team management waited on him to return to full fitness five months after he limped off with an injured hamstring. It has taken a lot of work behind the scenes for Rahul to fully get ready before he joined the team last week ahead of the Super Fours.

“I’ve had three [tests] done in the last ten days,” Rahul said with a laugh. “Two yo-yo tests, two practice matches, this [batting in the middle in humid conditions] was worse than that [yo-yo tests]. Yeah, for four months I’ve had a lot of juice, and energy. Hopefully, I can carry this, try to recover fast and come back fresh [for the Sri Lanka game].

Rahul then touched upon the route he took to his India comeback. There was a lot of soul-searching, and introspection of his game – which he mostly said was around the mental side – and, of course, the hard yards at rehab at the National Cricket Academy.

“Firstly, three out of the five months I spent getting fitter, giving my body the rest,” he said. “I was in great hands at the NCA. I want to thank the NCA staff and Rajni sir [Physio S Rajnikanth]he made me run around a lot. He’s gotten me fit for this. I knew when I returned, I was aiming for the Asia Cup. I knew the conditions would be humid.

“I knew the World Cup that will follow at home would be challenging, especially to do both keeping and batting. I trained that much extra. Batting, when you’re out and have a lot of time. I watched a lot of videos, and reflected on things where I can get better. I spoke to a few coaches, and I knew where the fault lines were, it was mostly mental, and I tried to address those things. I also came back fresh without any baggage, guess that helps.”

“When I walked in, there was that nervousness. It took me 10-15 minutes to just calm myself down and get my feet moving, get my mind thinking about the right things. When I hit one or two boundaries, the fogginess went away.”

Rahul on his return

How did he feel when he walked out for his first international game in six months, where he was up against Pakistan’s gun pace attack of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah?

“It was my first international match after a long time, the intensity isn’t the same at a practice match,” Rahul said as he opened up about his unbeaten 233-run stand with Virat Kohli. “When I walked in, there was that nervousness. It took me 10-15 minutes to just calm myself down and get my feet moving, get my mind thinking about the right things.

“When I hit one or two boundaries, the fogginess went away, and it became like before. I was reacting to the ball, to the situation. Just when my rhythm was building, it started raining and we had to wait for a whole day and restart, so again [upon resumption] the 10-15 balls were nervy. Once I hit a few balls in the middle, you forget about those things.”

On Monday, he batted the way he would, largely risk-free and with clarity, especially against spin in the middle overs. Unlike at the 2019 ODI World Cup, where Rahul had to shift back up to open in the wake of Shikhar Dhawan’s injury after being initially slotted in the middle order, there seems to be clarity that middle order is where his calling will be. India will hope that clarity will pay rich dividends at the World Cup.

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