Rahul the finisher sets new benchmark
In the 10 fifty-plus partnerships for KXIPso far in this IPL 2018, only four haven’t been for the opening wicket. What is even more significant with these numbers is that KL Rahul has been part of nine such partnerships, and three that didn’t come for the first wicket. The three losses in an otherwise impressive Kings XI Punjab report card had to do with their middle-order issues that have emerged every now and then, and twice it so happened that they ended up with a defeat even after 50-plus opening stands.
Just a glance at the highest individual scores for KXIP in the tournament would indicate a glaring disparity. Nair‘s half-century, which came against Delhi Daredevils in KXIP’s opening game, is the only score above 50 outside of Rahul andChris Gayle‘s contributions, which is a combined tally of seven fifty-plus scores. If the margins are reduced to 30-plus scores, there have been 16 such scores of which there are only two that have not come off Gayle, Rahul and Karun’s bats.
With the exception of KXIP and DD, every other team in this edition of the IPL has at least four players who have faced more than 100 deliveries. For KXIP, only Gayle, Rahul and Karun have spent more time at the crease, with Gayle’s average balls faced per match at 39.2 before this game being the highest for the Punjab-based franchise.
All these numbers suggested KXIP’s dependence on the three mentioned players and after being reduced to 29 for 2 within the powerplay in a chase of 153 against Rajasthan Royals, their middle-order frailty came up for discussion yet again. However, Rahul’s adaptability and his resolve towards finishing the game proved crucial for KXIP’s climb to the third spot on the points table.
Having scored at a strike rate in excess of 150 in four out of his five 30-plus scores before this game, Rahul had also failed to stay beyond the 12th over. In the previous game against Mumbai Indians, he fell soon after the powerplay – a bid to up the ante proving detrimental. His first half-century in IPL 2018, against DD, came off 14 deliveries and as early as the third over. For his second, against KKR, Rahul got there off 24 deliveries, inside the first 10 overs. His third half-century – against RR – was in complete contrast to his earlier fifties but it was a knock Rahul would later term as the one that left him most satisfied.
For the first time in this IPL, Rahul was still at the crease after the 12th over. By the time he entered the 40s, which was in the 13th over, KXIP had already lost four wickets. He even received a reprieve in the 15th over when he tried to slice a Jaydev Unadkat delivery to the off-side, with the third umpire concurring with the onfield umpires’ soft signal that Sanju Samson attempted catch was on the bounce. With four overs remaining in the innings, Rahul had managed only 48 off 43 on a sticky wicket that ensured runs came at a premium. But he remained undaunted with his approach, concentrating on running hard between the wickets and taking the game close.
Breezy contributions from Karun andStoinis took some pressure off Rahul, who had assumed the anchor’s role. But he still remained a vital cog for KXIP while RR were soon to introduce Jofra Archer – their primary pace weapon and a death overs specialist – in the 17th over. An economy rate of under seven an over when brought on during the last five overs, and accounting for seven of his eight wickets in that period, Archer was KXIP’s main threat and RR’s best bet at trying to see the back of a rock-ribbed Rahul. It was an exhilarating contest in the making, one that Rahul would win hands down.
Having done all the hard work on a sluggish wicket, a 145 kmph ball from Jofra came as an invitation that Rahul wouldn’t refuse as he brought up his third half-century for KXIP, off his 44th delivery, with an immaculate cut shot over the third-man fence. That shot signalled the beginning of a completely transformed Rahul, who scored a six and a four off Unadkat in the 18th over, and finished the game with the same treatment to Archer in the penultimate over.
“Rahul paced his innings really well, he took it deep. In the 17th and 18th overs, we gave away 16 and 15 runs in those overs, which was very crucial. During the (strategy) break we discussed about not not giving those big overs. But unfortunately Joff [Archer] and Jaydev [Unadkat] gave those big overs. T20 is a game where things do happen like this. Jaydev did bowl well in his previous three overs but it didn’t happen for him in that particular time. KL Rahul’s wicket was crucial, had we picked up his wicket early we would have been in a position to win,” conceded Sairaj Bahutule, RR’s spin bowling coach.
Having watched the different facets of Rahul’s innings – both from the dugout and during an unbeaten 68-run stand for the fifth wicket, Stoinis marvelled at the efforts of his fifth-wicket partner, terming it Rahul’s “best innings” yet. “That’s what the best players do, they win the game. It doesn’t matter that sometimes you’re not as stylish as you want to be, even though he was the stylish player of the game. But he understood the situation, he understood the wicket and he batted accordingly. That to me, I think that was his best innings so far,” Stoinis said, lavish in his praise of the opening batsman.
“It’s (the pitch) hard to understand until you go out there – if it’s slow, if it’s turning and those sorts of things. I wanted to make sure I was calm enough to take a couple of balls. And KL [Rahul] said the same thing when I got out there – said to relax, take a few balls and understand the conditions. And if it was a spinner and if he tossed it up, my plan was to look to hit straight, that’s my strength. And again with the quicks, to understand the conditions, understand the field, and for us to stay calm because if we were there till the end we would win,” said Stoinis about his approach during his partnership with Rahul, who also had spoken highly of the support he received from his partners.
Eventually, these contributions translated into a six-wicket win with eight deliveries to spare – Rahul scoring 84 off 54 at a strike rate of 155.56 – which hinted at a relatively comfortable victory. But all the hard work that went into achieving that, through Rahul’s complete innings, would serve as a benchmark for the rest of KXIP’s batsmen to try and emulate. Starting the season with the quickest IPL fifty to make a statement, Rahul has made one more through his career-best IPL score in this game, proving he is is broad-spectrum cricketer capable of handling diverse challenges.