January 4, 2020
For a player who started his international T20 career with a golden duck, becoming the 41st men's player to do so, KL Rahul's current standing as perhaps the leading T20 opener in world cricket is all the more staggering.
For a player who went through a string of scores of six, 19, 16, 26*, 17, 13 and 14 between July and November 2018 following an unbeaten 101, Rahul's 356 runs in nine international T20 innings in 2019 shows a turnaround that could be career defining.
For a player whose 2019 began with a score of nine at the Sydney Cricket Ground in test match cricket, which raised further questions about his ability, Rahul's 77 in the final one-day international of 2019 in Cuttack confirmed his immense skill.
Rahul is quite possibly in the form of his career coming into 2020 and with a World Cup coming near the end of the year, he is a crucial figure in India's T20 lineup. How has he become so good at being consistent in this format?
When analysing Rahul's batting style in the shortest format, there have been some interesting trends in the way he approaches his innings. In 2016, his opening year of playing T20 internationals, Rahul's strike rate was a preposterous 159.82 and he hit on average five boundaries a match (he only played five matches that year). The following year, Rahul's strike rate dropped to 140.90 despite an impressive average of 39.86.
That trend of going up in strike rate and then down has continued but last year he seemed to have found a balance in his game. He is not as attacking as he was in the past, as his 2019 strike rate of 142.40 suggests. While he is hitting 5.44 boundaries per match on average, which is the highest of his career, his style seems to be more cautious but more clinical.
This was seen in the Indian Premier League too last year, where he scored at an average of 8.12 runs per over compared to 9.5 runs per over in 2018. The effect of this reduced scoring rate can be seen in his dismissal rate.
In international matches in 2018, despite an incredibly high strike rate of 149.30, Rahul was dismissed on average every 24.1 deliveries. Compare that to 2019, the dismissal rate shot up to 31.3 deliveries on average. He is, according to the data, consciously giving himself more deliveries every innings to get himself set, which gives him the launch pad to go big, which he can with his skill.
A key thing to note also is that in addition to giving himself more time, he is adapting to the role of responsibility he now holds in the team. Indian captain Virat Kohli regularly speaks about the necessity of one of the top three batsmen to play till deep into the team's innings. Rahul seems to be taking this order to heart, and this reflects in his partnerships with other players in the top three.
Since the start of 2018, Rahul has had at least eight partnerships each with Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli in T20 internationals. Looking at these partnerships in more detail, Rahul's statistics this year stand out.
In 13 partnerships with either one of these three in 2018, Rahul had the better strike rate on five occasions. In the same number of partnerships this year, Rahul has hit at a better strike rate than his partner nine times. Yet he has remained not out 14 times out of his last 26 partnerships with the three players. He is combining dominance with consistency in his T20 game and is well on his way to fulfilling his potential in the format.
India's obsession to chase an ICC tournament trophy will go to Australia in October and because of his talent, and progression he has shown in the last year, Rahul will be the most important batsman for the team this year. 2020 could be his annus mirabilis year.
For all the talk about what will happen for India's best T20 starting eleven now that Dhawan is back from injury, India's team management must ensure they do not tinker with the space Rahul is in right now. He is too valuable for the team's chances of glory.