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From Stepney to front-wheel: KL Rahul makes hay while the sun shines

ICC Cricket World Cup - Sri Lanka v India - Headingley, Leeds, Britain - July 6, 2019 India's Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul

From making it to India's World Cup squad by the skin of his teeth to filling in Shikhar Dhawan's boots at the top of the order, KL Rahul has come a long way.

Following India's Test tour of Australia, which saw the unceremonious sacking of both openers KL Rahul and Murali Vijay, the Karnataka batsman had spent days on the bench before coming into the World Cup. As the controversy on TV chat show Koffee with Karan spiralled out of control, he, along with Hardik Pandya, had to miss the tour of New Zealand.

A decent IPL followed, not like the imperious 2018 edition, when he absolutely bossed the opposition bowling attacks, but still good enough to warrant him a place in India's 15-member World Cup squad.

One's misfortune, other's opportunity

Despite seeing a dozen players play musical chairs at the No 4 spot, KL Rahul was not supposed to be in India's starting XI at the first place. It was actually the 3-d unicorn, Vijay Shankar who was designated to be India's No 4, as per chief selector MSK Prasad.

As luck would have it, Shankar injured himself before the New Zealand warm-up game and the opportunity of batting at No 4 fell in Rahul's lap. To his credit, Rahul grabbed it with both hands and a swashbuckling century against Bangladesh in India's second official practice match helped the 27-year-old seal his spot for India's opening encounter against South Africa.

Just when India's batting order was looking more or less settled and the perpetual No 4 debate was nearing an end, Shikhar Dhawan suffered an unfortunate injury and Rahul had to pair up with Rohit Sharma to open the batting as the demon of No 4 raised its head all over again.

"Shikhar getting injured was unfortunate and I had to go top of the order. Not that I did not prepare to open the batting in my head... I had to prepare harder for No 4 because that is not where I have played all my life." - KL Rahul

However, India did not press the panic button as they knew that they had a backup opener in KL Rahul who had proved his potential at the top of the order earlier.

Deserves more appreciation

Many in India take the luxury of having a backup opener for granted. For some perspective, you only have to look around at the opening slots of other international teams to appreciate what Rahul offers. 

New Zealand had been struggling with their opening pair of Martin Guptill and Colin Munro. Munro was later sidelined for Henry Nicholls, who has failed in back to back innings as well. West Indies kept fiddling with Evin Lewis and Shai Hope at the top of the order. Afghanistan's skipper Gulbadin Naib made and an unsuccessful attempt of promoting himself to the top.

Rahul's first World Cup match as an opener was in the high-pressure game against Pakistan, in which he scored a half-century to not only allay his nerves but to give the team and the entire country confidence that Shikhar Dhawan's absence would not be sorely missed. A 30 and a 48 against Afghanistan and West Indies respectively looked promising while they lasted but Rahul was dismissed in both matches after getting a start. He went on to play another pleasing-on-the-eye knock of 77 against Bangladesh.

“After doing the hard work, and after getting through the first 10 overs or 15 overs, or as an opening batsman, to get the first 25-30 runs is the hardest time... A bit disappointed that I haven’t been able to take the game deeper. But it won’t worry me that much because there are a lot of things I’m doing right. And I know that the mistakes I’ve made, I can learn from them and get better.” - KL Rahul

And sure enough, the words came true. Rahul notched up his maiden World Cup century against Sri Lanka en route to partnering Rohit Sharma to pile up India's highest ever opening stand of 189 in World Cup history.

The best is yet to come

Despite amassing 360 runs from eight innings at an average of over 50 and a strike rate just short of 80, with two half-centuries and one century, Rahul has not got his fair share of appreciation. There are broadly two reasons why accolades have not flowed his way.

One, he is replacing Shikhar Dhawan and people expect him to match the southpaw. Rahul is not only expected to score consistent runs but to do them at a quick clip, a metric that the opener has fallen short of.

Two, having seen him lay wreckage to the bowlers in IPL, people have an idea of his potential and realise that he is not playing at his best. The couple of shots that he played off Lasith Malinga after bringing up his ton against Sri Lanka were an indication enough of his free-flowing ability.

Given that Rahul is a confidence player, the century has come at the perfect time for him. The confidence that the stylish batsman would have taken from his knock against Sri Lanka will only help him to play his natural game in the semi-finals. 

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