KL Rahul puts best foot forward on India comeback

K. L. Rahul made a 36-ball half-century in his first match for the national team since the Sydney Test in early January.

K. L. Rahul was typically flamboyant and had set India on course for a competitive score before mistiming a length delivery from Nathan Coulter-Nile.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

It was not quite a match-winning effort, but K. L. Rahul should be relieved with his half-century in the first Twenty 20 International. Comebacks are not always easy: the weight of expectation is often great. And when, like in this case, a player is returning from a suspension imposed for off-field acts, there is perhaps a need to feel confident on the field again. In these circumstances, his 36-ball 50 should count as a success.

Rahul was quickly into the groove on Sunday. He was the best of the Indian batsmen on show, and on a sluggish pitch, batted with a fluency that eluded most of his colleagues. He made room on the off-side, and cleared the infield, even if some of those shots did not come off the middle of the bat. And as long as he and Kohli were at the crease, India looked set for a good score.

"I feel he was our best batsman today," Jasprit Bumrah said afterwards. "He was playing with a lot of composure. He started off playing good shots, he was playing conventional shots. It's very good when a player like him is back in form."

Over the last few weeks, Rahul may have feared that the chance to be part of India's World Cup squad had gone. After having been in and out of the one-day side over the previous years, he found a place in the ODI setup on the Australia and New Zealand tours as India looked for a reserve opener ahead of the World Cup. And then came the suspension. So Rahul entered this home limited-overs series having played only three ODIs in 18 months. This fifty perhaps does not change much, but it leaves him in a good frame of mind ahead of the five one-dayers.

In the months after Rahul made his Test debut, having built a reputation as a composed, technically-sound opener in first-class cricket, he was at pains to point out that he was not a one-dimensional batsman. Ahead of the IPL 2016 final in Bengaluru -- a season in which he averaged 44 and had a strike-rate of 146 -- he was asked if the perception that he could succeed only in the longest format had changed. "You should tell me," he shot back. "For me there was never a doubt about the skill. But obviously I hadn't put in the same kind of performances in the previous years.”

Three months later, he was hammering a spectacular 51-ball-110 in a T20 against West Indies at Lauderhill, becoming only the third Indian to score hundreds in all three formats of the game. It was puzzling then that he slipped out of the reckoning in ODI cricket while remaining something of a regular in the Test and T20I teams. He has played only 13 ODIs, in some of which he has batted at three, four and five. His first one-day hundred, scored on ODI debut, remains his only ton in the format; he has two in T20 internationals.

In last year's IPL, Rahul batted like he was thoroughly enjoying himself, as he averaged nearly 55 from 14 games, going at a strike-rate of 158. There is perhaps something liberating about batting in T20s. "In this format of the game, he always plays with a lot of freedom," Jasprit Bumrah said of Glenn Maxwell on Sunday. “Maybe it’s true of a lot of batsmen.” Rahul will hope he carries his form into the one-day series, and then perhaps into the English summer.