Varun Shetty in Kolkata

Ever since he was dropped from the Test squad after the tour of the West Indies last year, KL Rahul has put aside the disappointment by becoming one of India’s best limited-overs batsmen. His workload has also intensified, given that he now keeps wicket for India in limited-overs cricket to provide balance in the XI.

After a short break post the limited-overs leg of the New Zealand tour – he didn’t play in Karnataka’s quarter-final fixture – Rahul travelled to Kolkata for the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Bengal. For all practical purposes, it was one of his last chances to showcase his abilities against the red ball before the curtain falls on the domestic first-class season.

Rahul ended up making 26 in the first innings and a two-ball duck in the second. But the numbers belie the fact that Rahul was the most assured batsman for Karnataka in their first innings on a challenging Eden Gardens pitch. In Karnataka’s first innings, Rahul was the only batsman to last longer than 40 balls, before he was out to a stunning low catch at deep point for 26 off 67. In the second innings, he was out second ball for a duck, deceived by Ishan Porel, shouldering arms to be trapped lbw.

“In the first innings, he looked good, he looked comfortable,” Deep Dasgupta, who is a commentator at the match, said. “He got out in the deep to a very good catch. While the other batsmen were comprehensively being beaten or played poor shots. It was a good catch. Second innings, fantastic ball, I’m not going to judge him based on the second innings.

“I know a lot of people will say that he’s back to red-ball cricket and he’s not scoring runs, but it’s also how you’re batting that’s important. He played 60-70 balls, he looked comfortable. He wasn’t in any trouble and this is a tough wicket to bat on.”

Rahul’s last match in red-ball cricket before this one came during India’s Test series in the Caribbean in August 2019, when a prolonged slump in long-format form and technical tweaks culminated in a nervy and indecisive 6 off 63 balls. During that match, an ESPNcricinfo analyst had examined a pattern of constant change in Rahul’s set-up at the crease as he went from one overseas tour to the next, battling difficult form over a period of nearly two years. All of that seemed to have caught up as that innings in Kingston played out.

“If we look at KL Rahul’s career in red-ball cricket, the first half of his career, his mode of dismissals were caught behind or caught in slips,” Dasgupta said. “And I think he made those adjustments. Then, if I’m not wrong, in the last 13-14 innings, he’s got out either leg-before or bowled. So suddenly the mode of dismissals changed. Obviously trying to eradicate that nick outside off stump, he did something that made him susceptible to the ball coming into him. And now, that he has that to sort out.”

If there were any technical changes, they were not exaggerated. But what he did appear to do in the first innings, like he had in the Vijay Hazare Trophy immediately after that West Indies tour, was give himself time in the middle as Bengal’s fast bowlers tested him. For the most part, he looked like the only batsman who was consistently getting behind the line of the ball, and Bengal’s best bowler on the day, Porel, said Rahul was the only batsman who didn’t seem hurried. With red-ball opportunities so difficult to find, it might have been a conscious effort from Rahul to be patient.

“It was good of him to give respect to good bowling,” Dasgupta said. “He hasn’t seen them before, but he was giving respect to the way they were bowling and that is important. And that just tells you the maturity of a batsman. And also the fact that he still wants to play red-ball cricket. Otherwise he would have come out and batted the way he did in New Zealand. Obviously that hunger is still there and he needs to maintain that because I think he’s good enough to play in three formats for the country.”

Since the start of 2018, Rahul had averaged 22.23 across 15 Test matches, most of which were overseas, and made only one hundred. He has since been dropped from the Test team, but has become an indispensable member of both their limited-overs teams and is in the middle of a dream run of form that began during Karnataka’s limited-overs double shortly after the West Indies series. This has essentially meant that Rahul has been unavailable for the Ranji Trophy until this round, making it nearly six months since his last long-format game.

India’s Test opening options were firmed up in the home season during that period, but an underwhelming tour of New Zealand for the opening pair of Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw will open the conversation once again. Rahul will be particularly disappointed at not making more runs, given that the next red-ball match might be a long way away as he thinks of a comeback.

India’s next Test series is against Australia towards the end of this year; his only chance to make a case might come if the India A team has a shadow tour of Australia at the same time or if there are other India A tours before. In a T20 World Cup year, that would mean even less time to make changes.

“That’s where I think the biggest challenge for this generation is,” Dasgupta said. “How you manage that transition from one format to the other. This New Zealand series is a great example. In a month’s time, most of these players have played T20, one-day, and Test cricket. So that’s something we have to keep in mind when talking about their techniques and what they’re doing. And I’m talking about players who play at least two formats. So I think they also have to start re-learning, in terms of how much they want to change their game going from one format to the other.

“KL is too good a batsman. Yes, he’s had a blip in his red-ball career. But it’s a matter of time.”

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