World Cup: Mangalore, Bangalore, England - the Rahul journey!

In 2002, a 10-year-old K. L. Rahul turned up for the Mangalore zone under-13 selection trials. He did not get picked, but that hardly dampened his spirit. In fact, the rejection lit a fire under him.

“KL has the complete package. What Virat is doing now, I feel that KL can reach that level in a couple of years,” says C. M. Gautam, Rahul’s Karnataka teammate..   -  AFP

Over the years, Samuel Jayaraj has trained innumerable enthusiastic children at the Karnataka State Cricket Association academy in Mangaluru. But very few of his wards showed that single-minded dedication to the sport the way K. L. Rahul did.

In 2002, a 10-year-old Rahul turned up for the Mangalore zone under-13 selection trials. He did not get picked, but that hardly dampened his spirit. In fact, the rejection lit a fire under him.

“After he saw that his name was not on the team list, Rahul approached me and asked if he could join our practice sessions. I said, ‘Yes. Come to the ground at 3 p.m. tomorrow, and practice will start at 3.30.’ But when I entered the ground at 2.30 p.m. the next day, he was already there. Even at that young age, Rahul knew the importance of hard work,” Jayaraj says.

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Jayaraj and fellow coach Devdas Nayak got down to work, testing Rahul against older fast bowlers like India under-17 cricketer Umesh Kharvi (who passed away in a road accident in Bengaluru in 2013), Mohammed Arif and Wildon Crasto.

It helped that Rahul kept wickets as well. “Nayak and I always told Rahul to watch the ball closely when he stood behind the stumps, as this would keep him in good stead when he bats. The key was that Rahul was a good listener who implemented what we said immediately,” Jayaraj says.

Early reward

Their efforts paid off, as a couple of years later, Rahul not only made it to Mangalore zone under-13 side, but also scored two double centuries in the KSCA inter-zonal tournament. “One of his double hundreds came at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium. In a big stroke of luck, Rahul Dravid happened to be doing his fitness work there. Dravid watched the entire knock, and then called Rahul aside and had a long chat with him. As a 12-year-old, to be spotted by Dravid, that was a huge boost to Rahul’s confidence,” Jayaraj says.

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Rahul with Karnataka coach J. Arunkumar. Wicketkeeper-batsman C. M. Gautam, a key part of the Karnataka unit, backed Rahul when Arunkumar told him they had to drop Rahul. Rahul repaid that faith by scoring 157.   -  V. V. Subrahmanyam

 

Around this time, Jayaraj made enquires with Dravid’s club, Bangalore United Cricket Club. to get Rahul a spot in that team. “I’d done my research and found that BUCC had produced the most number of India players. (BUCC secretary) Shavir Tarapore was a good friend of mine, so I told him to take a look at Rahul. Shavir gave Rahul ample match time with BUCC,” Jayaraj says.

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Rahul began to travel to Bengaluru to play matches for BUCC, but he did not forget his roots. “He would play a match for BUCC, and the next morning he would return to Mangaluru just in time to take the field for our team here,” Jayaraj says.

After completing high school at NITK English Medium School in Surathkal and pre-university at St. Aloysius, Mangaluru, it was time for Rahul to shift base to Bengaluru. It was a tough decision for him, his family and his coaches. “By the time Rahul turned 15, everyone started to tell us to take him to Bengaluru. But we were keen to see Rahul feature in the 2010 ICC Under-19 World Cup as a Mangaluru boy, and we were lucky to achieve that. Here was a St. Aloysius lad wearing the India jersey — it made everyone in our city proud. Rahul was a brilliant student too – he got around 92-93 percent in the 10th standard and 89.6 per cent in PUC (pre-university course),” Jayaraj says.

Parting advice

Jayaraj gave Rahul some parting advice before he packed his bags and left to Bengaluru — bat, bat and bat some more. “God has put Rahul on this Earth to showcase his batting. One must take God’s plan very seriously,” Jayaraj says.

And thus began the Bengaluru chapter of Rahul’s life. He enrolled at Jain University, an institute renowned for its ardent support of sportspersons. Pankaj Advani, Rohan Bopanna, Robin Uthappa, Anup Sridhar, Manish Pandey, Stuart Binny, Karun Nair — the star-studded alumni list is endless.

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Cricketer Kaunain Abbas was yet another big talent on campus. Abbas was a year senior to Rahul on the college team, and the two would later go on to play together for Karnataka in domestic circles.

Abbas recalls the turning point in Rahul’s then-fledging career. “When Rahul first played for the college team, he wasn’t a big hitter. He was a classical batsman who played the waiting game. In a span of two months, after playing for the senior Karnataka side, he became a big hitter. He quickly became famous for hitting sixes out of the ground,” Abbas says.

A curious Abbas asked his mate how the change came about. “Rahul told me that he had worked on his core, which helped him get into a stable hitting position. This took his game to the next level,” Abbas says. “But it didn’t come easy. He would spend hours doing core exercises.”

K. L. Rahul when he was part of the India under-19 team.   -  Vivek Bendre

 

Great work ethic

Rahul’s work ethic kept him on track and away from the distractions that come with college life. “We knew that he would achieve big things. He was extremely focused on his cricket career. Negative talk didn’t bother him one bit,” Abbas says.

At this stage, Rahul ate, slept and breathed cricket. When he wasn’t involved with his college team, he turned up for his club, junior state teams and the senior Karnataka side. He made his first-class debut in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2012-13 that he hit his straps.

Wicketkeeper-batsman C. M. Gautam, a key part of the Karnataka unit, remembers Rahul’s early days with the big boys.

“He loves batting for long hours — be it in matches or during training. When he first came to the team, he would bat for hours and hours in the nets — facing throw-downs, the bowling machine or net bowlers. He would continue batting even after the team finished our session. We used to laugh and say, ‘Look at this crazy guy!’ But later we understood that he simply loves to bat — that’s what makes him special,” Gautam says.

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Despite not yet securing a permanent spot in the state team, Rahul was not short of confidence. Gautam illustrates this point by sharing an anecdote from a 2012 Ranji Trophy match, against Vidarbha in Mysuru. In the first essay, opener Rahul made 157, while Gautam smashed 257. “We had a 272-run partnership, and that was the first time we batted together. Rahul was just in his second season, but the way he handled the pressure gave me the feeling that he would go on to play for India. He talked to me a lot between overs — what the bowlers were trying to do, how the pitch was playing and so on. I was astonished — this young guy was telling me what to do. But whatever he said was right,” Gautam says.

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Rahul and Karnataka teammate Stuart Binny during a Ranji Trophy training session.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

The next season was a phenomenal one for Rahul, who hit 1,033 runs to finish the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy campaign as the second-highest run-scorer in the tournament. The dream run nearly did not happen, Gautam recalls. Rahul had a mediocre start to the campaign, with scores of 33, 34 and 47 in his first two outings. With regular opener and star batsman Robin Uthappa returning to the side for its fixture against Vidarbha at Nagpur, the team management considered dropping Rahul. Skipper Gautam, however, stuck his neck out and backed Rahul to come good.

Captain’s faith

“JAK (Karnataka coach J. Arunkumar) told me that we had to drop Rahul. I said ‘No, the guy has good potential. Let’s give him a longer run.’ JAK replied that we could not fit Rahul in the XI as Robin was back, and that Robin would open with Mayank Agarwal. I said ‘Fine, let Rahul bat at No. 3,’ and JAK agreed,” Gautam says, “The previous night, I spoke to KL and told him that he had my full backing.”

Rahul repaid the faith placed on him, making a crucial 157 to guide Karnataka to a first-innings lead. “There was no looking back for Rahul from there. He scored a mountain of runs for us that season, which helped us win the Ranji Trophy,” Gautam says.

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Indeed, that golden form earned Rahul a spot in the Indian Test team that toured Australia in 2014. In just his second Test, in Sydney, Rahul showed his class with a brilliant 110 — the first of his eight international centuries thus far.

All the success that Rahul has achieved does not come as a surprise for Gautam. “After Virat Kohli, Rahul is the one to watch out for in India cricket. KL has the complete package. What Virat is doing now, I feel that KL can reach that level in a couple of years,” Gautam says.