When Joe Root won the toss for the second Test match, he didn’t think twice before electing to bowl. Indian captain Virat Kohli said he would have done the same. The conditions were perfect for seam bowling, and given the arsenal at their disposal, who would’ve thought otherwise?
England were hoping to get a few quick early wickets to expose that woefully out-of-form Indian middle order. That, though, wasn’t to be, for what happened over the course of the next few hours set up one of India’s famous Test victories in England.
Indian openers KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma put on 126 runs for the opening pair, but more importantly, both batted out 43 overs which helped them negate that new ball. KL Rahul went on to score his second century in England and set up India for a big first innings score which they would go on to capitalise to win the Test.
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The Reliable Duo
Everything was set up against the visitors: Ollie Robinson was running in from one end, high on his five-for in the first Test, and partnering him was James Anderson, who has been one of the greatest red ball players. But the Indian openers were up for the task and excelled at something that is uncommon in modern day cricket – not attack and chase deliveries. Neither of them lost focus even when there was a good spell and played each ball on its merit and respected the balls. Even when they had a slow start, making 14/0 from 12 overs, they didn’t try to quickly switch gears to get some runs, but played patiently and knew if they stuck around the runs would come.
In the opening session of the second Test, both Rohit and Rahul played just 11% and 5% attacking shots respectively. The two kept it simple, followed the orthodox techniques, left outside off and were solid in defence when there wasn’t an option to leave.
Sharma scored at his own pace and it never felt like he was under pressure to score. Rahul on the other hand, brought out the Rahul that the world first saw when he entered the scene back in 2014 – full of style, panache and stroke play in his innings that was built on a remarkable show of patience that evolved into fluent stroke play.
Rohit and Rahul’s opening stand was the first 100-run opening partnership outside Asia since 2010, when Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag put on 137 against South Africa in Centurion. It was the third highest opening partnership for India in Tests at Lord’s and only the second opening century stand in England since 1980. These stats just showcase how important their stand was.
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Let’s Talk About Rahul
For the last two and a half years, KL Rahul has been in the form of his life, especially in white ball cricket. But he hasn’t had too many chances to convert that stunning white ball form to red ball form, mainly due to the emergence of Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Mayank Agarwal and Rohit Sharma as an opener and his own poor form in red ball, especially during the 2018 England tour.
But with Shaw not considered and Gill and Agarwal out through injuries, this was Rahul’s chance to make it count. And he made sure of it, grabbing the opportunity with both hands. The time away from the red ball squad seems to have helped Rahul grow as a cricketer, as even though he wasn’t the first- or second-choice opener in England, he stated he knew what his role was and was ready to do whatever was required for the team.
Ahead of the Test, Rahul had said, “I have had to keep changing my role. That’s not new and it doesn’t bother me anymore. It gives me great confidence that the team believes that I can deliver as an opener as well as in the middle-order.”
Now, opening abroad isn’t new to Rahul, but what stands out between Rahul pre-2021 and the current Rahul is his evolution. His four innings so far have served as the perfect answer to those doubting whether he should be in the squad and also base the template for openers batting in SENA countries.
After top scoring for India in the first Test, that could have given them a chance to win had the match gone ahead, Rahul came into Lord’s brimming with confidence. He never seemed at discomfort, and even when Sharma was scoring at a decent rate while he was 33 from 118 balls, not once did he try to break the shackles and go for runs. That showcases the maturity the Karnataka batter has had over the last three years and how he sees himself as a senior batter of the team now, burdened with responsibility.
And that responsibility has been added on more for both Indian openers for some time now given that the next three after them haven’t scored for some time. Even more impressive for someone like Rahul, who is a natural stroke player, was him playing second fiddle and understand the need of the team. As an opener in England, it is imperative you see out the new ball. And he did just that. When Sharma got going, Rahul comfortably saw out the attack, and once Anderson removed Sharma, Rahul slowly switched gears and scored his final 90 runs from 130 balls. What stood out about these runs was at the pace he scored; he scored run-a-ball when Cheteshwar Pujara joined him, letting Pujara take his time to settle in, and once captain Virat Kohli came he scored just under run-a-ball as Kohli, unlike Pujara, kept the scoreboard running more often.
Rahul’s innings was the template for an opener to bat deep, especially away from home. In the first session and half, he showed extreme restraint and put on a master class on how to leave and defend the Dukes ball, and when his set opening partner got out, he took it upon himself to bat deep to give his team a good foundation on Day 1.
By the time Rahul got out, he had faced 500 balls in the series, which was 50 more than the entire balls he faced in all of 2018. His sixth Test ton has saw him leave 21% of the deliveries, which is the highest for him during any of his tons. A matured head between his shoulders, willingness to soak in the pressure take responsibility and patience has proved successful for Rahul.
Speaking about Rahul’s 129, his opening partner said, “It was probably the best I have seen KL bat. He was in control from start to finish; at no point did it look like he was confused or thinking too much. He was very clear with his plans and when you do that, it definitely works. Today was his day and he made it count.”
Rahul now holds the record for all three of India’s last 100s in SENA countries by an opener. With maturity and patience shown by him, exactly what is needed to be successful in England, Rahul has probably closed any debate about his Test spot. Given the form of India’s numbers 3,4 and 5, it is crucial that Rahul and his opening partner take on that added responsibility to make sure that the fragile middle order isn’t exposed too early. Both have done just that in the opening Tests, which is a major reason for India heading into the third Test 1-0 up.