Virat Kohli, the captain, keenly watched the right-hander playing some of those exquisite drives on a difficult practice pitch, then told somebody in the team management: “Kya player hain yaar (what a player he is)!”.
Rahul has had a topsy-turvy ride in international cricket since then, but the team management never lost faith in him. They stuck with him through difficult times, waited for him during his injuries, and come the home World Cup, the right-hander is showing that Virat’s confidence in him all those years ago was not misplaced.
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At three down for 2 on a difficult pitch against a quality pace trio and a couple of very capable white-ball spinners, Rahul and Virat stitched together a partnership of 165 runs that helped India romp home on Sunday. Rahul’s 97 not out was a mixture of everything that makes a fantastic middle-order player.
He was ready to bide his time, cutting down on the shots in his armoury, waiting for the right opportunity and then bringing his entire repertoire into play.
You could be spoilt for choice if you’re asked to select Rahul’s best Sunday shot. But probably the one (or two) that would stand out are the two late-cuts that he played off leggie Adam Zampa in the 18th over.
There were immediate references to the undisputed master of that stroke — GR Viswanath — who had also scored a magnificent 97 not out against West Indies at Chepauk in the 1975 Test match that India won.
“It’s purely coincidental that both scored 97 not out but it brought back memories. Vishy had the incredible ability to play the late-cut looking at the bowler instead of the ball. Much later in 1987, when he was retired from international cricket, he played that shot to me in an office game as I bowled him an armer on a turning track. The ball raced away to the fence between slip and short thirdman. These two shots of Rahul were really out of the Vishy playbook,” Sunil Subramaniam, a renowned former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner and the man who mentored R Ashwin, told TOI.
While Rahul’s finesse was one of the talking points of the day, it was his new-found ability to bite the bullet and carry on in difficult conditions that deserves special mention.
“We always know what Rahul brings to the team, the quality that he has especially in the middle order. He is someone who can play both spinners and pacers well and that gives you a little bit of stability and confidence,” Team India bowling coach Paras Mhambrey said at the mixed zone after the game.
While Rahul was a picture of confidence, having the master himself at the other end only helped the 31-year-old, who had also kept wickets for four hours in the heat of Chennai.
“I had just taken a shower and was looking to put my feet up for a while when I had to go in to bat. Not that there were a lot of conversations, but Virat told me to treat it like a Test match situation and I am happy I could do that,” Rahul said.
Now it’s up to him to carry on with it, but the early signs are truly promising.