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KL Rahul the new boss in Virat Kohli’s yard as India break free of familiar old rut in World Cup opener

Shortly after Rohit Sharma took over as India’s ODI captain in November 2021, he immediately addressed the elephant in the room.

Rohit being Rohit, he didn’t beat around the bush. Unlike his predecessor Virat Kohli, whose analogy of “45 minutes of bad cricket” drew mixed reactions after India crashed out in the semi-finals of the 2019 FIFA World Cup, Rohit cutting straight to the point was a breath of fresh air. “I want the middle order to be ready for a 10/3 situation,” he said. Kohli’s success as India’s captain will not be a cakewalk and Rohit has faced a harsh reality as India has struggled with setbacks, failing to reach last year’s Asia Cup final and suffering a shocking series defeat against Bangladesh. But almost two years later, things seem to be falling into place… brick by brick.

On Sunday, just two overs into India’s innings, haunting memories of Old Trafford, Champions Trophy 2017, and World Cup T20 2021 came flooding back. Ishan Kishan, Rohit Sharma, and Shreyas Iyer all dismissed for ducks. This was even more disheartening than CT ’17 and WC ’19, where the top order at least managed to get off the mark. At 2/3 the 200-shot target looked as big as 270-280. In a surreal coincidence, the giant screen showed 5/3 in a 3.1 over, exactly mirroring India’s dire situation four years earlier in Manchester against New Zealand. We all remember what happened then – the team’s inability to recover from an early wicket cost India the FIFA World Cup, a topic that set a grim precedent.

Against Australia, however, things were about to take a different turn. You just had that feeling in the air when KL Rahul joined Kohli. After keeping wicket for 50 overs in the sweltering Chennai heat, KL Rahul had to don a different pair of gloves and pads in 45 minutes, entrusted with the responsibility of reviving India’s innings with the master of the chase. And as it turned out, in the ultimate display of grit and resilience, he beat Kohli to hand India a famous victory. While this Indian team usually favors collective achievements over individual records, Rahul was unreservedly aiming for a century – something he openly acknowledged after the match. His innings deserved one, even if it came at the cost of a few extra deliveries. He was so good.

Over 400 runs from 7 innings at a staggering average of 100.50. These are Rahul’s underwhelming numbers since his return to the Asia Cup. This is what redemption looks like in its sweetest form, from the man people loved to pick – just ask Venkatesh Prasad – to India’s best No. 5 batter. With multiple injuries, surgeries, captaincy debates, and endless strike-rate talks, Rahul has avoided all the hype, which surrounded him. His latest tally at Nos. 4 and 5 is the closest to matching Kohli’s peak – the period from 2016 to 2018 – and fittingly on this night, Rahul eclipsed his partner in an absolute batting masterclass.

Before all the Kohli fans draw their swords, hear me out. His knock of 85 was equally crucial. The way his brain works during the chase is for scientists to figure out. But in terms of sheer brilliance, Rahul took the cake by no means. Apart from the dangerous scare he survived on 12, Kohli flirted with danger on several occasions, especially when he lured his bat into that treacherous zone just short of the off-stump. Even after dealing with Mitchell Starc’s harrowing helmet hit, Kohli showed his typical audacity by attempting to take on the fiery bowler, reminiscent of the carnage he unleashed on Jofra Archer during the IPL earlier this year. Amidst all the preachy Instagram messages and philosophical pronouncements, Kohli has shades of his brash self deep down. But the bigger picture was that he didn’t give Australia a single whiff despite those early bouts of lack of concentration.

Yet there stood Rahul, radiating a level of confidence and accuracy that could rival the great Glenn McGrath in his prime. His crisp cover drives and deliberate strategy to take on Adam Žampa marked the moment when Australia’s last glimmer of hope began to fade. Zampa, the only specialist in Australia’s line-up and a perennial thorn in India’s side with his 34 wickets in 22 ODIs found himself humbled when Rahul unleashed a string of exquisite late cuts. Among the myriad moves that Rahul made against the Australian fast bowlers, one particular moment stood out. It wasn’t a power-packed shot, but a fine defensive stroke that went past Mitchell Starc and the diving fielder before finding the boundary. This shot summed up Rahul’s innings – full of class and elegance.

During Rahul’s career, there have been moments where he has been frustrated, tested the fans’ patience and even been boring – think of his performance against Hong Kong during last year’s Asia Cup, for example. But the current version of Rahul is nothing less than a revelation, returning to his most unbound, almost limitless self of 2018. This era was a golden phase in Rahul’s career, which turned out to be an electrifying opener. But even then, some of his most exciting innings came from No. 4. He shone with 101 against England in Manchester and a heartbreaking 110 vs West Indies in Lauderhill – a game where MS Dhoni failed to score 2 off the last ball. There too, Rahul was on his knees… but in a different way.

Image Source: India TV News

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