Kolkata: The timing of the announcement of KL Rahul as the stand-in India captain for the three One-day Internationals against South Africa - on the last day of 2021 - is quite uncanny. After the initial years of living with the tag of the man who could be the next big thing in Indian batting line-up after Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, his elevation to the vice-captain’s post and now this responsibility on the stroke of New Year is an endorsement of the Indian board’s growing faith in him.
Will the year 2022 be Rahul’s year then? Chetan Sharma, the chairman of selection committee, admitted in as many words on Friday that they were grooming the graceful Karnataka batsman for future captaincy - and its easy to see why. Firstly, he is a certainty in all three formats and had been no stranger to captaincy, while him being younger to both Kohli and Rohit at 28 means in simple terms - he has more years of international cricket left in him.
The recognition has not come easy for ‘KL,’ as he is known among teammates. The journey had been bit of a rollercoaster one since his Test debut in Australia in 2014, with his talent never in question but the temperament often coming under the scanner - with Rahul being bracketed as a white ball player for number of years despite him doing the hard yards in domestic red ball cricket with success. To top it all, there was of course that blip of 2018 when he and Hardik Pandya became the fall guys of Indian cricket for their so-called mysogynist remarks in a TV talk show.
In hindsight, the phase between 2018-2020 was a tough one for him. A poor average of 22.23 over 15 Tests, played mostly overseas in that period, saw him being dropped from the Test squad when Rahul continued to multi-task as a wicket-keeper to retain his place in the white ball set-up.
It’s a new Rahul now with the self-assured approach that he has shown in the longer format throughout 2021 - playing a critical role behind India’s Test wins in England and South Africa. The yield for his new-found patience and tighter technique has been 461 runs in five Tests at an average of 46.10, including centuries at Lord’s and Centurion.
Rahul now has hundreds in each of the six countries he has played Test cricket in - Australia, England, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies though he rated the last one at Centurion his best for the extremely challenging conditions to bat on and the quality of attack.
How did Rahul, the quintessential strokemaker, convert himself for the longer formats in the year just gone by? By his own admission, it’s his new-found respect for the waiting game that is so essential in Tests, which has rewarded him throughout the year. If leaving deliveries outside the off stump was an attribute that he tried to build into his system, the way he was playing close to his body and tried to eschew his favourite cover drives could well have been an object of envy for Kohli - the man Rahul admires so devoutly.
If the powers that-be are now looking at Rahul with a new-found respect, his stock in franchise cricket has also shot through the roof. After scoring runs by the bagful in the last three seasons for the under-performing Punjab Kings, Rahul is now game for newer challenges and declared himself as a free agent for IPL mega auction due in his own city of Bengaluru in February.
The market buzz is at least two franchises - Royal Challengers Bangalore and the newly formed Lucknow are ready to break the bank for him to get him on board as a potential captain.
Well, the bottomline is 2022 could well be Rahul’s year!