Not technique, just a matter of concentration

There was a time when K L Rahul would either score century or nothing, his first half-century coming after 11 Test innings during which he had three hundreds in three different continents. Then came a time when he reeled off nine half-centuries in 11 innings, falling on the verge of a three-figure score on three occasions.

That prolific run, however, ended with the conclusion of the home Test series against Sri Lanka in November 2017. Since then it has been one downhill journey for the opener in Tests. His exclusion from the squad for the three-Test home series against South Africa on Thursday marks the culmination of his indifferent run in the longer format, and it won’t be a stretch to say that even Rahul might have sensed it coming. 

In 27 innings post his 79 against Sri Lanka in Kolkata, Rahul has mustered a mere 578 runs at an average of 22.23 with a brilliant 149 against England at the Oval and a 54 against Afghanistan in Bengaluru being the only two 50-plus innings. This is significantly a poorer show compared to his performance in his first 20 Tests in which he aggregated 1428 runs in 30 innings at an average of 44.62 with four centuries and 10 half-centuries.

While there is no doubt in anybody’s mind about the immense talent the Karnataka batsman possesses, there is a feeling that his struggles largely are to do with the mental aspect of his game.

“There could be a concentration issue,” says former Maharashtra opener Surender Bhave. “A lot of people talk about technique, biomechanics, backlift, this and that... but I think if you have powers of great concentration, then you can almost overcome any other technical issues. If I were to be him -- I have spent all my life as an opener -- I would be working more on the concentration part.

“To be precise things like visualisation, yoga come to my mind because he does seem to have this tendency of getting these 30s and 40s and get out. And what happens is if you are an opener and if you get a start, you are more or less expected to nail it. I think that’s where it’s not happening for him. I mean nobody in India has any doubts about his talent and his ability to play the white ball very effectively, it’s the red ball where the little bit of problem lies,” explains Bhave, who was also a former senior national selector.   

His batting in last three series -- two against Windies and one against Australia -- have been particularly frustrating. He has either appeared completely off-colour or failed to make the most whenever he has looked assured. The scores of 0, 4, 33*, 2, 44, 2, 0, 9, 44, 38, 13 and six lend credence to Bhave’s views.

It’s also interesting that for someone who was earmarked for the longer format of the game right from his teens, Rahul’s limited-over game has improved by leaps coinciding with his diminishing returns in Tests. Bhave, though, doesn’t see any connection between the two developments.  

“I personally feel that the way cricket is moving right now, I think a lot of their training methods in the gym or overall are actually aimed at becoming very good hitter of the ball,”he points out. “And I think the prerequisite for multi-day cricket is defensive technique. That’s why we think Cheteshwar (Pujara) is the vital cog in that line-up for India. Because of his powers of concentration one and solid defence. When you talk to these youngsters, you get a sense that they really care about bat speed, how far the ball is hit and in which angle a six could be hit... I think being so talented as the hitter of the ball, KL also excelled in that area.

“I don’t think it’s beyond him to become a dependable red ball cricketer but what I would say is that two things he has to look for -- for one he needs to be very good in defensive technique and other one is concentration. I think in the pecking order, the concentration has to come on top and then the defensive technique. Those things will make a good multi-day cricketer. If you see all the great Indian batsmen in the last decade, and all of them had great concentration levels,” he offers.

Rahul has bounced back from many setbacks in the past in his short career -- from injuries to controversies to selectoral policies. There is no reason why he can’t overcome this latest blow. Perhaps he just needs to talk to right people, analyse what worked for him in the past and come back stronger.

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