KL Rahul finds his Test calling at no.6, time for him to make that spot his own | Cricket

There’s something about the Boxing Day Test, Centurion and day one that seems to bring the best out of KL Rahul. Two years back, in his familiar role as opener, the right-hander had produced a classy century, on the back of which India won the first Test of three, only to surrender the series 1-2.

Centurion: India’s batter KL Rahul plays a shot during the first day of the first Test cricket match between India and South Africa, at SuperSport Park Stadium, in Centurion, Tuesday(PTI)

On Tuesday, Rahul was assigned a new responsibility, one that has triggered a heated debate in Indian cricket circles. In his 48th Test, the 31-year-old was making his maiden appearance as the designated wicketkeeper-batter, India’s third player in that position since Rishabh Pant’s unfortunate road accident 12 months back.

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In one of those strange coincidences that only cricket can throw up, Rahul had begun his Test career on this same day, December 26, nine years back in Melbourne, when he batted at No. 6 in the first innings. He only made six, moved up to No. 3 in the second innings and was dismissed for one, playing an ungainly pull against Mitchell Johnson.

In the next Test in Sydney, Rahul moved up to open the batting, which he had done all through his first-class career for Karnataka. A six-hour 110 seemed to have set him up as the opener India had been looking for, and for the next 42 of the next 45 Tests, he played as an opener, with mixed results.

A string of poor scores and the emergence of several contenders, among them Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill and Yashasvi Jaiswal, ushered him out of the Test mix, but he is rated highly enough for the decision-makers to uncover avenues for him to remain relevant in the five-day game. Towards that end, therefore, this move to ask him to don the big gloves and provide experience, quality and class at No. 6.

Rahul’s 50-over exploits as wicketkeeper-cum-middle-order-batter clearly influenced this call, but with his excellent unbeaten 70 on a tricky surface at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Tuesday, he justified the move, holding India’s crumbling innings together with assurance and poise. South Africa’s quicks, led by the admirable Kagiso Rabada, made the most of unnatural seam movement and spongy, tennis-ball bounce that most of the top order found hard to negotiate, but Rahul was seldom troubled as he got behind the line of the ball, defended when he had to and committed himself fully when he went on the offensive.

This knock will have huge ramifications going forward, not just for Rahul but for India’s Test batting as such. Middle-order slots will open up in the next couple of years and maybe Rahul will finally find his calling there. That could be with or without the keeping gloves, especially when Pant returns or Ishan Kishan is back in action. Rahul needed this knock to convince himself that he has what it takes to make a good fist of batting against an older ball, and to convince those that make the decisions that it is worthwhile investing in him with more than one eye on the future.

South Africa’s tall speedsters exploited the bounce admirably, targeting the leg-side as a genuine area of picking up wickets. They often had a leg-slip, two men in the deep field and a square-leg, as much for a leg-side strangle – to which Gill perished – as for the pull, which accounted for Rohit. Rahul wasn’t fussed; his first scoring stroke was a screaming pull from head-height and outside off that momentarily nonplussed Rabada, but Rahul didn’t play the pull indiscriminately. It was only when he was confident he had got on top of the bounce and therefore could keep the ball down that he essayed the stroke, high-risk given the steepling bounce.

Even as the wickets tumbled around him, Rahul kept his wits. He didn’t get too bogged down, nor did he embrace all-out, brazen aggression. He allowed Shardul Thakur to play his strokes and was encouraged enough to give the No. 8 his share of the strike, but once Jasprit Bumrah and then Mohammed Siraj came in, he farmed the strike beautifully while also playing gorgeous strokes, including a six over cover off Marco Jansen that took one’s breath away.

Rahul struck the perfect balance between defence and attack, a template batters from both teams should seek to emulate. He shared the day one honours with five-wicket man Rabada, but within the Indian dressing-room, he stood the tallest. 208 for eight is not trifling, even if India must bowl really well to make it look mighty. But the only reason India are there is because of their newest No. 6, KL Rahul, the wicketkeeper-batter.

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