CricViz Analysis: The Changing Role of KL Rahul

Ben Jones reflects on a radical shift in the batting style of the Kings XI opener.

The 2018 Indian Premier League was a wonderful time for KL Rahul. Swaggering around India in Kings XI red, slog-sweeping his way into the hearts of neutrals. He was in the form of his life. 659 runs at 9.5rpo, made in a whirlwind 40-day frenzy where he looked ready to ascend to the next level of fame and acclaim; no longer just the poster boy, but the star of the show.

Unfortunately, for a man who strikes the ball as cleanly as Rahul, he had shown a surprising lack of timing. The nature of India’s touring schedule meant that Test cricket was the highest priority in 2018, three significant away series forming a sequence that was pre-ordained as the defining period of Virat Kohli’s captaincy. This was a year when FC runs were the most valuable currency, and whilst he was dominating in the shortest format, Rahul’s red-ball form was not quite as hot. It wasn’t even close.

In the following eight months, his stock fell through the floor. His returns in Test cricket were falling every time he batted; an average of 29.90 in England, 18.50 against the West Indies, 11.40 in Australia. When he was dropped from the side after 0 and 2 in Perth, few could argue against the decision with much conviction.

The knock-on effect was considerable. Whilst Rahul has never quite mastered ODI cricket – he made more runs in 2016 than he has done in the following three years combined – it has felt peculiar that such a talented white ball batsman has been only on the fringes of the 50 over side. He has played in just four of India’s 12 ODI series since the Champions Trophy. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his reputation has suffered hugely because of that badly timed slump in Test cricket.

So the start of this IPL represented a chance for Rahul to get back that swagger, to reclaim his reputation as the vivacious talent in Indian cricket, ready to step up to full-blown, multi-format stardom. A chance, essentially, to erase the last year and start again. What’s actually happened has been far, far more interesting.

What we can see is that there has been a significant shift in Rahul’s approach to batting in this season’s IPL. In 2016 and 2018, Rahul was a dominant dasher, scoring at 8.78rpo and 9.5rpo respectively. Last year only Rishabh Pant hit more boundaries than him. So far this season, his scoring rate has plummeted, and his dismissal rate has risen substantially.

This change in his output can be traced back to his intent; Rahul has been more cautious this year, but also more clinical. He has attacked less in 2019 than he has done in any previous IPL season, and has played considerably fewer false shots, showing greater restraint and greater control than he ever has done before.

That clinical selection has paid off. Those attacking shots that he has played have also been more secure than they have been before – just 11.9% of his attacking shots have lead to a false shot, the lowest for any IPL he’s played in. There is a sense, from all of this data, that Rahul is taking greater care when considering which deliveries to attack, when to use his abundant talent.

Of course, you could take a broader view. Some may suggest that Rahul’s switch in strategy is simply a function of how Kings XI are playing as a whole, giving him less individual credit or agency. However, what we see is that whilst Rahul has scored more slowly and securely, his opening partners for KXIP have scored more quickly and less securely than in previous years. While Rahul has zigged, the man at the other end has zagged.

The picture this paints is a little clearer. Rahul is a man adjusting his mindset, and performing a different role, occupying a more responsible position in the Kings XI set-up. Perhaps this is a function of Mike Hesson wanting to maximise the effect of Chris Gayle’s destructive pre-IPL form; perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that Kings XI’s strength is their bowling, and that their batting outside of the opening partnership is relatively weak, or at the very least unproven. Just as Hesson has shown a desire to lengthen the batting order by using Curran as a pinch-hitter in the one match where Gayle didn’t open, the difference in Rahul’s approach is a tactical switch designed to minimise Kings XI’s weakness. It has worked – after six matches, Kings XI sit third in the table, well above where the punditocracy predicted they would be.

However, whilst this season of IPL has been fascinating, the consequences of this switch in approach could extend beyond the table. Rahul has long been criticised at international for being slightly dogmatic, unable to adapt to the particular challenges in front of him. For many, that is where is failures in Test cricket come from. They point to the fact that his notable recent successes in the Indian blue have come with the pressure off. A blistering century at Old Trafford in a T20I showed his skills, but nothing new – everyone knows Rahul can blast away an attack on a flat deck. The same could be said for his century at The Oval in the dead rubber Test; England wanted to win that Test of course, and were nervous for an hour or so while Rahul and Rishabh Pant were blasting everything to the boundary. Yet is was another flat surface, against a team understandably distracted by Alastair Cook’s farewell. He started his English summer with a century, and ended it with one, but neither proved anything we didn’t already know.

What this IPL season has shown us – so far – is that when asked to perform a different role, Rahul can adapt. The fact that he has proven this just six days before the Indian World Cup squad is announced feels careless, but not as careless as if he’d proved it six days afterwards. The Indian selectors are still not quite certain of their middle-order make-up, and when they’re casting their collective eye over Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Vijay Shankar and Rahul himself, the latter’s recent form could be enough to twist their arm. It is of course unlikely – Rayudu is the incumbent in possession of moderate recent success, a valuable attribute in a team that is succeeding so effortlessly elsewhere – but Rahul can feel safe in the knowledge that over the past fortnight, he has put his best case forward.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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