It is a favourite metaphor for growth, for change, for transformation, across cultures and religions, regions and geographies, spanning time immemorial. At its simplest, it is beautiful, the very essence of life itself, the story of how the underappreciated caterpillar becomes the celebrated butterfly.
Scientifically, though, this is hardly a poetic process. After eating its way through enough leaves and hanging itself upside down, the caterpillar spins itself a cocoon. In children’s tales, it then bursts out as a butterfly, fluttering pretty wings and spreading beauty. The reality is a touch more gruesome, in which the caterpillar digests itself, an enzyme dissolving all tissue. Certain cells then specialise, developing into different body parts and basic organs.
In short, a radical physical transformation takes place, but if we viewed the world entirely through a scientific prism, fascinating as the facts are, the rapture of this world would pass us by. Richard Bach nailed the process with a typically delicate sentence: What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.
Before you think you have mistakenly stumbled onto the pages of National Geographic rather than Wisden India, here is an Indian cricket story of transformation. The story of a caterpillar who grew into a butterfly and learnt to sting like a bee. A story underpinned by radical physical transformation.
At 11, KL Rahul started playing serious cricket in Mangalore, and despite being slight of build and overmatched physically, made a mark by literally holding up one end for his team, carrying them repeatedly against older and more accomplished opposition. Rahul, the son of professors — his father, Lokesh, head of Department of Civil Engineering in Surathhkal and mother, Rajeshwari, teaching history at Mangalore University — moved to Bangalore when he was 17.
Upon doing so, the quiet, polite and unassuming boy found himself repeatedly at the end of a ticking off from his state coaches. One objected to his gel-slicked, spiky hair. Another took umbrage at streaks and highlights at another time. When he wanted to grow his hair out, Bangalore’s old fashioned cricket gurus drew the line. But, look at MS Dhoni, he has long hair, and he is captain of India, Rahul reasoned. Naturally, the argument found few takers. You get picked to play Tests for India, and then you do what you want with your hair, Rahul was told, and the obedient ward complied. Rahul’s current coiffure is no aping of Dhoni’s straightened rebonded locks, but an expression of admiration, and love for his favourite footballer, the most famous man bun in sport, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Just as Test batsmen give the first hour to the bowlers and then tuck in for the rest of the day, Rahul bided his time, and true to form, began to grow his hair out once he made the Test team. No coach could then stand in the way, no hairdresser dared tell him what he ought to do.
But Rahul’s hairstyle is not the only thing that has undergone sea change over the years. Initially labelled a long-form specialist because of his orthodox setup, straight bat and the high price he put on his wicket, Rahul loved the big shots even as an Under-19 player – then clean shaven and short cropped — repeatedly stunning bowling with sublime timing that sent the ball into the stands over long-off and even cover. Not for him the muscular slogs or cross-batted heaves, but proper cricket strokes that went the distance.
It took time for the cricket fraternity to change their perception of Rahul, but at every instance, he helped the process along. In the Indian Premier League 2016 season, a last-minute split webbing to Mandeep Singh was the proverbial bursting of the cocoon, and under Virat Kohli Royal Challengers Bangalore, Rahul racked up 397 runs at a strike rate of 146.49 with 37 fours and 16 sixes in 12 innings. The young man could clearly play the big shots when it was needed.
Fortunately for Rahul, a limited-overs tour of Zimbabwe followed, allowing the butterfly to take wing at just the right time. Having already scored a Test century in Australia and then Sri Lanka, Rahul dominated the Zimbabwe bowling, being dismissed only once while scoring 196 from three innings, including a century. “Coaches or your players in the dressing-room can tell you you’re not good enough for certain formats, but I never thought they were right,” said Rahul then. “My advice would be not to listen to people. I mean, obviously, you have to listen to your coaches and your elders, but you don’t have to do what they say all the time. You know best about your game – go out there, be yourself and express yourself. If someone says you can’t do something, prove them wrong.”
If your name is Rahul – Mr Lokesh picked the name because he was a fan of Sunil Gavaskar and mistook Rohan, Gavaskar Jr, for Rahul – you’re from Bangalore and have a clean looking technique, people can be forgiven for labelling you the kind of good boy who will sit in the front bench at in school, never swear and expect you to live up to some “good boy” physical stereotype.
But, just as Rahul expresses himself in surprising and individual fashion with the bat, he does as he pleases with his hair, and his body.
On twitter, he proudly posts photos of his man bun.
— K L Rahul (@klrahul11) April 4, 2016
On Instagram, Rahul says: My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.
A photo posted by rahulkl (@rahulkl) on
For Rahul, the beard and the man bun are not signs of being a rebel without a cause. For KL, as he is known to his cricket mates, this is not a sign of the boy from Mangalore being a wannabe from the hood. For this butterfly, life is too short to let it flutter by, listening to advice of those who label him without taking the trouble to understand him.