Samuel Jayaraj still vividly remembers the time KL Rahul first came to meet him at the Mangalore Sports Club ground. Rahul had signed up for the Mangaluru Zone under-13 selection trials but had missed out. His enthusiasm for the game, though, had not dimmed, and he sought out Jayaraj.
“He was 10-and-a-half then,” recalls the 57-year-old. “He came and asked us where we practised. We showed our nets. He asked for the timing, and we told him that we’d start by 3.30 p.m. daily.
“I always go half-an -hour or one hour early. The next day, I saw a boy sitting with his bag. It was Rahul. It was 2.30 p.m. Something made me think: a small boy coming one hour early. He turned out to be a very studious, committed, and obedient student.”
Two decades on, Rahul is one of India’s batting mainstays. Going into the World Cup at home, he has been pencilled in as the team’s middle-order fulcrum, a kind of responsibility he has always enjoyed, according to his coach.
“Responsibility gets the best out of him,” says Jayaraj, who now runs the 22 Yards School of Cricket academy in Mangaluru. “Back then, in the Mangalore zone, we never had any good batters. Very good bowlers, but no batters. Even when the opponents were all out for 150, we used to be out for 80 or 90. We always used to tell Rahul, ‘You have to bat at both ends.’
“And when he batted, it was a different ball game. He used to build the innings. And we used to tell him, ‘You got to play four balls from this end, take a single, and go and play the next over also.’
“There are so many incidents from his younger days. I still remember a match we played in Shivamogga. It was a new wicket, but Rahul said he would get a hundred; And by lunch, he was already batting on 89. When he was 12, I think he got two double hundreds in the [KSCA] inter-mofussil tournament, one of those with Rahul Dravid in the vicinity.
“During his younger days, there were some very good players... Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair, Shishir Bhavane, and others. If Rahul got a hundred, we used to go and tell Karun, ‘Rahul has got a hundred.’ Karun would come back and tell us, ‘Then tomorrow I’m going to get a hundred’. It was healthy competition, and it helped everybody.”
Even as he plundered runs in age-group cricket, among the first signs that Rahul was made for the big league arrived when he scored three back-to-back centuries against Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra in an U-15 tournament. The buzz in the local circles was palpable, says Jayaraj.
“There was talk [that he was a star in the making]. I am not exaggerating because he has now played for India. But when he got those hundreds, we felt the boy had something. Back then, we had a very good left-arm spinner named Nagaraj playing local cricket. He also used to come to watch our matches. One day he asked me, ‘Jayaraj, will anybody from here play for India?’ And Rahul was batting. Some good local bowlers like Umesh Karvy and Mohammed Arif were all bowling to him, and this boy was middling everything.
“Nagaraj watched him and said, ‘We see some spark there.’ Nagaraj was the first person to call me when Rahul was selected for the Under-19 Indian team [in 2010]. We still speak about that incident.”
Rahul’s propensity for excellence wasn’t limited to cricket. He was academically sound, but his father, Prof. K.N. Lokesh, a former director of the National Institute of Technology in Surathkal, allowed his son to chase his cricketing dreams. After 10th grade, Rahul opted for commerce instead of science.
“Dr. Lokesh was fantastic,” Jayaraj says. “In 10th grade, Rahul secured 96.5%, if I am not mistaken. It would have been a tough decision for Dr. Lokesh and Rajeshwari ma’am, to put their son into commerce. They were very sweet parents, and Rahul was very lucky. They always supported him.”
And Rahul repaid their faith handsomely. “Every match, he performed. He never came back without scoring, be it in inter-zonal cricket, a probables tournament, or for the state. He never disappointed his parents.”
Despite intense scrutiny and a recent lack of centuries in Test and one-day internationals, 31-year-old K.L. Rahul has earned unwavering support from the team management led by Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid. A hamstring injury that sidelined him from IPL 2023 till September raised concerns, but Rahul’s unbeaten 111 in the Asia Cup Super-Four match against Pakistan in Colombo demonstrated his enduring capabilities and justified the team’s faith in him.
“He has taken it very positively,” says Jayaraj of the phase leading into the World Cup, where the critical press has examined him with stern eyes. “I don’t think any one of us doubted his skill or technique. It was only the injury part [that was worrying]. But he has recovered well. He has come out of it earlier than I expected, and that is good.
“For me, it is his temperament that stands out. His commitment to the game is very high. Like [against Pakistan], he was very determined to get a hundred. He told me that if he got a chance to play, he would get a hundred. That is what KL Rahul is all about.”
Such is the trust that apart from his batting role, Rahul, likely, will also shoulder the wicketkeeping duty. “That is not a new role for Rahul,” says Jayaraj. “He was a wicketkeeper even for Karnataka U-13 and U-15. He always played as a wicketkeeper-batter. He came into our academy as a wicketkeeper-batter. And he has continued it.”
Jayaraj expects Rahul to revel in this role at the World Cup.
“I am looking forward to a lot of runs from him. I think he should get one or two hundreds. I will be the happiest person.
“I have seen that boy working and toiling. He should make the best use of it. He is still very down to earth and the same Rahul I saw 20 years ago. I see him having the same fun.
“Our interactions sometimes happen on a day-to-day basis. If he is doing well, I will not speak to him. If he is not doing well, then all my assessment yardsticks will come out,” Jayaraj adds, with a gentle laugh. There is, however, a quiet confidence that it won’t come to that.
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