KL Rahul is a fine young batsman, still only 25 but with centuries in all three formats at the highest level. His fundamentals are strong, as they have to be if you are to be even a marginal success in international cricket. He is easy on the eye, moving with a grace and an elegance that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to the majority. He has every stroke in the book and more, and is unafraid to play them. Batting isn’t a vocation or a chore, it is something he uses as a means of expression, the willow an extension of his tattooed, sinewy arms as it directs the little cricket ball to different parts of the ground with seemingly minimum of effort.
Rahul is also the city-bred modern-day Indian cricketer, unafraid to share his innermost thoughts, his deepest fears, in the most public of platforms. He isn’t loud or brash or even remotely close to arrogant or cocky; what he is, is confident, sure of himself, with the belief that he can do special things for his team.
On the face of it, the world is Rahul’s oyster. What can go wrong for an intelligent, articulate, gifted young man who has already attained more success in two and a half years as an Indian cricketer than several others have in a lifetime of their chosen paths?
Plenty, as it transpires.
In these two and a half years, Rahul has also seen a lot of things that several people may not in their lifetimes. That a still maturing, still developing 25-year-old has no business seeing, far less encountering and experiencing. But then again, that’s how these things are, aren’t they?
Different professionals have different worst fears. For a journalist, and one speaks from not-pleasant experience, it is what is called the writer’s block. It can be debilitating and totally nerve-wracking, a test of character and resolve more than anything else. For a professional sportsperson, nothing can be more damaging than injury, and the time that it relegates you to the sidelines as you embark on the arduous journey of recovery and rehabilitation.
Rahul has had hamstring, forearm and shoulder injuries already in his short flight as an international cricketer. He has had to go through what he calls ‘boring’ rehab, doing the seemingly mundane and routine things day after day, week after week, to return to complete fitness. As a batsman, which Rahul primarily is, he would rather be hitting the nets, working on improving his skills, ironing out his weaknesses, expanding on his strengths. But when that’s precisely what he cannot do for days on end, everything else can become a chore, and especially the long route back to recovery, as unavoidable as it might be.
Twice in the last ten days or so, Rahul has spoken of the challenges of keeping himself motivated during the rehabilitation process. Of wondering whether putting in the hard yards in the gym was worth it all. After all, this is not what he had signed up for. All he wanted to do was join his teammates on the park, sometimes bat in hand, at other times helmet on his head fielding close-in, scoring runs, taking catches, making stops, effecting run-outs, celebrating the good moments with his second family and commiserating together during the not-so-good ones.
Should he have been wondering whether it was worth it? At the end of the day, the lot of a professional sportsperson is such that unless you are remarkably blessed or remarkably fortunate, you cannot have a successful career of any substantial length without being touched by the unwelcome hand of injury. You know it is part of the territory, whether you have signed up for it or not. So should you not be taking it in your stride?
You should be, of course, as Rahul – the intelligent young man that he is – and others like him know. But knowing it still doesn’t make the process any easier. You are itching to get back to doing the ‘actual’ things – such as playing. And, towards that end, you can sometimes push yourself so hard that you start to disregard the recovery chart outlined by the experts, thereby doing sometimes irreparable damage, at other times shooting yourself in the foot by delaying your return because of a combination of boredom and over-enthusiasm. How you strike that balance between the keenness to be back on the park and strictly following the instructions of the surgeons and the physios can have a big say on what kind of a future you make for yourself.
It is important when you pick up injuries – or an illness like Rahul did earlier on this tour of Sri Lanka – that you have the right people in your corner. And by that, one doesn’t mean just the doctors or the physios who work on and with you, but family and friends that can keep your spirits high, that can make you see the glass as half-full, that can ride the rollercoaster along with you and be the sounding board/punching bag that you occasionally do require. But no one, of course, can help you more than you yourself, which is something Rahul has realised even this early in life.
There was no touch of being resigned as he speaks of how he is now reconciled to the fact that injuries will happen. “I have kind of gotten used to this,” he says, thoughtfully but not self-pityingly. “More than playing for a long time, I have been in and out of the team because of injuries. It’s never easy to come back. It takes you a couple of games to get back into your groove as an opening batsman, understand where your off-stump is, understand what pace you have to play at, how many shots are too many shots, how slow is too much slow… There are a lot of things, a lot of doubts in your mind if you keep going out and coming back in but I have enjoyed the challenge.
“These injuries… People might say there is a certain part where I can control my body and I can take care of my body but sometimes it just happens. No matter how well I have taken care of my body, I have been injured a few times which is very unfortunate and which is very disappointing. But each time I have come back, I have come back stronger, I have come back more hungry. I’ve wanted to contribute to the team, wanted to make a difference to the team whenever I was out there in the middle. It’s kind of taught me to value my position, value my opportunities each time I go out. I play each game like it is my last game. That’s something that has really worked well for me.”
There is much to learn, admire about and imbibe from the Rahul school of thought. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it can work for a young man with so much passion and restlessness that he sees each day on the outer as an opportunity lost, as time wasted, then it can surely work for many, many others, too?