It is six weeks since K. L. Rahul scored the winning runs in Dharamsala. As he completed the third run that afternoon – when India actually needed only two for victory – Rahul leapt, punched the air, and roared in what seemed like fury. That moment capped off a gilded 12 months for the Karnataka opener: beginning with the 2016 IPL, through the tour of the West Indies, and ending with the long, triumphant season at home. The Australia series was, Rahul acknowledges, the hardest of his 17-Test career. It was also his finest, the six fifties in seven innings a decisive factor in India's Border-Gavaskar Trophy success.
Rahul is playing no part in the Indian Premier League (IPL) this year, though, as he recovers after surgery on a labral tear of the shoulder. “The target is three months,” he says, “but you never know.” Over lunch in one of his favourite restaurants in the city – “we come here often after practice,” he says, placing his order without a look at the menu – Rahul speaks of overcoming self-doubt, his evolution as a batsman, and dealing with criticism.
You came to this city, to borrow your own words, “as a skinny 11-year-old from Mangalore”. Did you imagine you'd get here that day?
I was always confident that I'd achieve my dream at some point. I had to cross a lot of hurdles, emotionally and physically. It was hard work but I always knew this was what I wanted to do. I had the support of my family and KSCA (Karnataka State Cricket Association). There were points in my life when I did doubt if I would make it big but once I was 19 and 20, it was clear it would happen at some time. I honestly felt I was ready much earlier but everything comes to you at the right time.
The last 12 months have been great. What has worked for you?
I came to a realization that the times I've failed are the times I've over-thought about myself and my game and not believed in my skill and what I've been gifted with. During the last IPL, I got to spend a lot of time with AB (de Villiers) and Virat (Kohli). I used to be a shy, reserved person. I always felt going up to seniors and talking to them about cricket would disturb them. If anyone came up to me after a game and spoke to me about cricket, I'd be like, Man, I've just finished cricket, let's talk about other things in life . But I also realized that these two months are the best time for me to learn from the best. I went out of my comfort zone and spoke to them. They were more than nice, more than welcoming and the advice they gave me, the direction they showed me, I followed religiously. You realize talking to these great players that you don't have to complicate the game. Just keep believing in the gifts you have. Those are things I've done right, not worried about results, numbers, success, failure, criticism, what people write. All these things have... I can't even say taken a backseat, because they are out of the window. The last 12 months, I have somehow gone up and injury has brought me down. There has always been this up and down. I've realized how to value the things I have right now and be grateful for them. It's humbled me a lot and made me realize that sport is a small part of our life. I don't want to stress myself out about it.
Was there anything in particular you asked them?
Questions about handling different situations. I told them, I get to 20 and 25 very easily and then...the next half is the important bit, when I'm set I need to get runs for the team...how do I do it? Questions like that. You always think, How do guys like AB and Virat do that? How does AB play those shots? They don't think. They just go out there and do it. They don't have doubts. There's not a lot of stress in their head. There's nothing wavering. For a youngster it's natural and human to doubt himself in that position. Once I got a couple of half centuries and did it a few times, I realized, This is not as complicated as I made it seem in my head. I realized after that that talking to people is the best way to go about it. I'm very new to international cricket. In the Indian team, I talk a lot to Vijay, (Cheteshwar) Pujara, (Ravichandran) Ashwin, everybody. I'm sure they've been through what I've been through. I'm sure they've done something right to pass that barrier and get to where they are.
Are the repeated injuries frustrating?
Very. I came back from the West Indies and the USA in red hot form. I was striking the ball well. It wasn't even a big injury (hamstring, suffered during the first New Zealand Test). But it just wasn't going. They said it was going to be three weeks but it took eight weeks. That's very hard for an athlete, when you don't have clarity. You can't blame anybody but the body takes its own time. But every time I went back I was hungrier than the last time. The hunger is what kept me going. Maybe the hunger came because of those breaks. Every time I went up, there was a speed breaker and I had to start from zero.
Does it make you question yourself?
Of course it does. Right now that's the only thing that's going on in my mind. All I can think of when I sit down is, Whyam I getting injured? What's going wrong with my training? I'm somebody who does everything in a disciplined way: nutrition, sleep, fitness everything, yet something keeps happening. I guess I'll just learn on the go.
You scored six fifties against Australia. Were you disappointed you didn't get a hundred?
Not at all. It was surprising to me too that I wasn't very disappointed after the series. Maybe I was a bit frustrated during the series, not because I wasn't getting a hundred but because I wasn't converting those starts and getting bigger runs for the team. We in the team realize that every series there will be two or three players in good form; whoever is in good form has to stand up and make it count because everybody can't click at the same time. We've spoken about that. That was more disappointing. But at the end of the series, once I got those winning runs, everything was gone. It didn't really matter. Those six fifties will just be in the books. I can't be happy but I can't be sad either.
What was running through your mind when you scored the winning runs in Dharamsala?
It was a mix of a lot of emotions. We hadn't been tested like that. It was by far the hardest series I've played in. There was a lot said, to individuals and the whole team. We did give it back to them but not as much. We still draw a line somewhere. We let our performances speak for themselves. That series meant a lot to all of us. It was the end of a long, long Test season for us. It was a mix of relief, joy and a feeling of... no Test cricket for a while . We went through a lot. It was the perfect way to finish that year.
It was also an acrimonious series. Did that affect you as players?
No, it didn't. I guess it brought the best out in us. Everybody was itching to go each day. That's how they play their cricket and we all understand that. No complaints, not dirty right now. These are the kinds of series you will remember... you have been tested in different ways. More than the bat and ball, other things have been highlighted. It's good; it will be etched in people's memories.
What is it like to be a part of this young, all-conquering Indian dressing room?
We lost the Pune Test but there was not one head that was down. We were obviously disappointed but we didn't waste any time in the dressing room. As soon as we finished the Test match, we went out, started playing football. We believed in each other so much that we always knew we were going to come back and beat them. We got a bit of a pinch in Pune and it brought out the best in us. There are no insecurities; people enjoy each other's success and company. The atmosphere in the dressing room is full of fun. There's a strong friendship and family bond that we've built in the last two-three years. It also helps that we're all young guys and have played junior cricket or IPL together at some point. We want to leave a big legacy behind. We want to bring this new brand of cricket, play aggressive no matter what, take on the opposition, always think attack.
How has your batting evolved since the time you made your Test debut?
It has changed completely. It's a whole new Rahul. This is what I always wanted to be. Playing international cricket has given me the confidence. There was always self-doubt holding me back previously. In my head I was two steps below where I was in reality. But now, playing international cricket has given me that confidence; it has let me be myself, 100%, without any inhibitions. I do play more shots now. But I've made sure I've kept it very... [conventional], I always play cricketing shots; I don't try anything fancy, unless I feel it's required either to put the bowler off or to send the opposition a message. It's more a tactical move if I play a fancy shot.
What is it like to open with M. Vijay?
According to me, he's the best opening batsman in international cricket at the moment. The way he's performed in all conditions says a lot about himself and his game. I get to learn a lot from him because he's someone who's turned his cricket career around. He's become this very disciplined guy in his head, leaves a lot of balls. He can play a lot of shots too but he's become so much more consistent over the years. We enjoy batting together. We talk a lot between overs and most of it is not about cricket. We do realize that we haven't got a lot of big partnerships together. So, we say, let's aim for 5 runs, 10 runs, set small targets . It's about keeping each other's head calm. It also helps that we have a great friendship off the field.
After the third T20 against England in February, Kohli had this to say about you: “He is mentally tough. He knows what he needs to do when put under pressure, and backs his game. I wish I was as smart as him when I was 24.” How does it make you feel, knowing your captain has this much trust in you?
That is what has changed my whole... that's what has been different in the last 12 months, the amount of confidence my captain has in me. He's given me so much confidence, it's incredible. I didn't have so much belief in my abilities myself. But once I saw one of the best players in international cricket showing so much faith in me and seeing whatever he saw in me, it made me realize, I do have this stuff. It's about believing in myself. I shouldn't doubt myself, just be grateful and happy for the gifts I have. I've tried to be somebody else, tried to play a different game in the previous IPLs and it's not gone too well. I've learnt a lot from Virat.
The mental strength...
I've always grown up with older people, never had a lot of friends my age. I've been away from home, been on my own for almost half my life. All of that is where I became mentally strong. I learnt a lot about life in general. My parents have always told me to be a good human being first. They will be happy if people know me as a good person than as a cricketer. But it's impossible that 10 out of 10 people will say and think good things about me. I also need to be happy with myself. We've spoken a lot and he's seen how mature I am in my head. That's what has led him to say these things. That [comment] came right after four bad innings, three in the ODIs and one in the first T20. For him to say something like that gave me a lot of confidence.
You spoke of growing up on your own...
I was living in the KSCA dormitory... almost six to eight months of the year would be in the dormitory. If you've been to the dormitory you'll know there's nobody there. It feels haunted. If you want to sleep there and wake up the next day and play cricket, you need to be mentally strong. I don't know how I did that. If I had to go back and do it, I don't think I would. But it was the dream, the passion, the desire that kept me going.
How do you spend free time when you're on tour?
When you're abroad, it's very easy because we all like to go out, see the city, find new restaurants. I'm a big foodie. In India it's very restricted. You're just sitting in your room, playing PlayStation or watching some shows on the laptop. Abroad, it's a lot of fun, we do a lot of team activities together. In the West Indies, we went snorkeling, spent time on the beach together, went jet-skiing. It was very nice. That's where the friendship and the bond has developed because this team has been away for two years, playing cricket abroad. We did a lot together as a team. It showed in the performances.
But in India?
It's Netflix most of the time (laughs). I watched Suits through the Australia series. But when I'm at home, like now, I don't watch it. I hate to sit at home and watch shows. I'm not that kind of person. I love to go out and have meals with my friends, or watch a movie.
Do you talk to your parents about cricket?
When I'm on tour, I speak to them every day for four-five minutes. Very short conversations...they ask if I've slept well, eaten well. Nothing about cricket. Of course my dad's a big cricket lover; my mum has now started watching. She sees me on TV and she has to understand the game a little bit. When I go back home, there's no cricket talk.
You had long hair; you have tattoos. Do you think your appearance has led to presumptions about you or criticisms of you?
It never bothered me. But I'd be lying (if) I said I did not get any criticism or negative comments from close ones, people who supported me. They were only looking out for me. I'm very clear in my head. I've built this whole bubble around me. If I don't think it's wrong, I'll go ahead and do it. Just because I'm an India cricketer it doesn't mean everybody has the right to tell me how I should live my life. There's no rule book that says this is how a cricketer should be. I don't think it affects me in my cricket. That's being me. That's what everyone says but when you're being yourself, they don't like it. What can you do?
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