My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story,” reads a caption on one of K.L. Rahul's Instagram pictures.
Kannaur Lokesh Rahul can be expressive on and off the field. The man bun, beard and tattoos are a style statement for the present-day cricketer. The Samurai bun gave way to cool braids in Florida, where he scored a stunning unbeaten 110 that brought India within sniffing distance of a win against the kings of Twenty20, the West Indies. In whites or blue, Rahul is a picture of elegance, batting equanimity and chutzpah at the same time.
The Mangaluru boy is a product of the domestic cricket structure, not a fast-tracked product of the post-IPL era. He made his debut in Test cricket against Australia in Dec-ember 2014, followed by ODI and T20 international debuts against Zimbabwe in June 2016.
Success did not come easily and his patience was tested. He was drafted into the Test side as the third opener and got a chance in Australia when in-form regular Murali Vijay suffered an injury during the tour.
“It [playing the waiting game] is part of the job,” he told THE WEEK on his return from Florida. “Nobody makes it big without the hunger, sacrifices and hard work. I have no complaints as these things make you tougher. I value my position in the team and am really happy with what I have.”
With that 45-ball ton at the Central Broward Regional Park stadium in Florida, Rahul became only the third Indian to hit a century in all three formats. He also holds the record of be-ing the first Indian to score a century on debut in ODIs. He is just 16 matches old in international cricket (8 Tests, 3 ODIs and 5 T20Is) but already has three Test hundreds to his credit and one each in ODIs and T20Is.
His cricketing journey started at the age of 11 in Mangaluru, where he was a student of the on-campus National Institute of Technology, Karnataka (NITK) school. Rahul caught the eye of coach Samuel Jayaraj, who has remained an intrinsic part of Rahul's journey ever since.
“Mangaluru has never had a good batsman before him. If Rahul got out, our team would be bowled out within 100 runs and if Rahul batted for long, we got big scores,” recalls Jayaraj. Such was the pressure on little Rahul from the very beginning of his career.
At the age of 12, Rahul was spotted under Karnataka State Cricket Association’s talent resource development officer (TRDO) system, but since he was ineligible to join the academy as he was not yet 14, KSCA consultant Makarand Waingankar sought special permission from secretary Brijesh Patel. “He allowed Rahul to practise at the academy nets but did not allow his enrolment. The first impression was great—he was a sound batsman, very small and quiet. He impressed the junior selectors and everyone kept an eye on his performances,” says Waingankar.
“When he scored successive double hundreds in under-14 inter-zonal matches, we realised that he could become a big player if we worked on him,” recalls Jayaraj. “He played for India at the under-19 World Cup in Australia/New Zealand, and got into the Karnataka Ranji team. The transition was tough for him and he was out of the team after the season. But he worked very hard.”
At 17, Rahul moved to Bengaluru following his Ranji selection. “I am lucky to have seen icons like [Anil] Kumble and [Rahul] Dravid training at close quarters in the Chinnaswamy stadium. I got to see the amount of discipline and hard work they put into their training,” says Rahul.
The breakthrough came in the 2013-14 season with Karnataka, when he amassed 1,033 runs that included a match-winning performance in the Ranji Trophy final. A solid 2014-15 season at home saw him earn a Test call-up for the tour Down Under.
The opener also had to deal with expectations of matching up to his namesake, Rahul Dravid. Here was another Rahul, who played classic cricketing shots, his favourites being the straight drives and the cover drives. “Everyone wanted him to be like Rahul Dravid. Now they can see the original K.L. Rahul,” says Jayaraj. “He is a good student, still learning, very humble and very sincere.” Rahul credits his family—parents, Lokesh and Rajeshwari, both professors, and elder sister—for keeping his values and focus intact.
He scored his maiden Test hundred in Sydney, after a nervy start in the first Test at Melbourne. He went on to score tons in every away series since—against Sri Lanka and the West Indies. “The first 100 in Sydney was challenging, but it took a lot of pressure off me,” says Rahul. “It was my first Test series and I had to fight hard for those 100 runs. Each run scored was a new learning for me.”
His third Test ton—158 at King-ston—put him in exalted company. He became the third Indian opener, after Sunil Gavaskar and Vinoo Mankad, to score their first three Test hundreds away from home.
His Test credentials secure, V.V.S. Laxman and Tom Moody laid the foundation for Rahul's transformation into a successful short-format player at Sunrisers Hyderabad. “I was trying to hit the ball out of the ground, but he [Laxman] told me to play cricketing shots that I am good at. It took me some time to get this into my head,” reveals Rahul.
He played for Sunrisers in 2014 and 2015, before joining Royal Challengers Bangalore for the 2016 season. Playing alongside Virat Kohli has helped Rahul a lot. “You can see he has transformed because he now has the self-confidence,” says Karnataka coach J. Arun Kumar. “Kohli has given him the freedom to express himself and not just rotate strike. This is a positive influence on the whole team.”
Demands of international cricket have only made Rahul work harder on his fitness—a leaf he appears to have taken out of Kohli’s book. “If you play all three formats, you have to stay extremely fit as you play almost 200 days of cricket. Fitness gives you the edge and the Indian team is a very fit unit,” says Rahul.
Coach Jayaraj still sees room for improvement, and expects bigger scores from his ward. Rahul is already in prep mode for the upcoming Test and ODI home series against New Zealand. In the meantime, he has decided to drop a light-hearted “What next?” on his Twitter handle, sharing a picture of his latest hairstyle.