Man of the Match KL Rahul after India’s victory against Australia in Chennai, October 8, 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
ALL KL RAHUL REALLY wanted to do, as he would later concede himself, was to take a shower and put his feet up. That would have been just reward for having not just been on the Chennai field under the unbearable afternoon sun during Australia’s batting innings, he also kept wickets during it—squatting up and down for over 300 balls (including the wides that were bowled) and having affected the dismissal of the dangerous and in-form Marnus Labuschagne to restrict the opposition to 199 runs. Job done, India’s number five batsman in the batting order must’ve thought.
Far from it. At the end of just two overs in what should’ve been a comfortable chase, Rahul found himself rushing out to the middle of the field, bat in tow, with his team in all kinds of cruel trouble: three wickets down for just two runs in India’s opening World Cup game on October 8. And instead of washing his sweat off and giving rest to his weary legs, he bent his hips into his batting stance and ended up immortalising himself not only on the grandest stage, the 50-over World Cup, but also on a ground that keeps finding a way to lend itself as the setting for true cricketing immortalisation.
Purely as a venue for international cricket, few around the world (let alone in India) get much better than Chennai. The elegant white stands with sleepy awnings erected directly above the quaint Madras Cricket Club that rise in sync right beside the endless stretch of yellow sand that is the city’s Marina Beach— the ground’s architecture specifically designed to waft in ocean breeze—do play their role in making the MA Chidambaram Stadium what it is; but without the locals that occupy its many seats, easily the country’s most bipartisan spectators who have historically inspired the players to produce their best goods, this ground perhaps would’ve been just that—any other ground.
Sure, there may be other centres that are naturally prettier, such as Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa, or the sprinkle of astonishing locations in the Caribbean, where cricket stadiums find themselves nestled between pristine rivers and lush mountains, or even the ground in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, where the stadium is seated under the muscular, ice-streaked shoulders of the Dhauladhar range in the Himalayas. But none of them can come close to boasting of the treasure trove of cricketing magic that seems to save themselves for unboxing only here in Chennai, these moments captured all along the walls of Chepauk with stellar artwork in the form of murals.
Painted by an unknown artist, for his signature seems elusive on these majestic walls, there’s a scene arrested in mid-Australian rapture at the end of only the second tied game in Test history in 1986. Then, from 1999, there’s Wasim Akram’s jolly bunch of Pakistanis taking a lap of honour around the Chennai field (they got a standing ovation from the locals) after Sachin Tendulkar’s incredible knock of 136 runs in the fourth innings ended in vain. There’s also a combined reproduction of Virender Sehwag and Karun Nair’s celebrations, India’s only two Test triple-centurions who scored their respective showpiece innings here (Sehwag had scored his other 300 in Multan, Pakistan).
The outer concentric wall of the ground is full, but somehow Chepauk will have to find or make space for one more piece of vertical real estate, for the legacy of Rahul’s unbeaten 97 is bound to age with the same thumping resonance in the hearts of those who watched it.
Even before his October 8 heroics, Rahul was anyway remembered fondly on these shores—albeit only for one knock, which, incidentally is his only Test innings on this ground. Back in December 2016, during the final Test of that England tour and before his good friend and Karnataka state-mate Nair stole all the headlines with his triple hundred, Rahul opened the batting and scored a breathtaking 199 runs—still his highest Test score. But that memory would’ve held little or no water as Rahul hurried out to the pitch to join Virat Kohli, even as India’s top order lay in shambles.
In the absence of the unwell Shubman Gill, India’s current wunderkind and the team’s in-form and regular opener, Ishan Kishan joined captain Rohit Sharma at the top of the order for his debut World Cup innings. It lasted one ball, with Mitchell Starc forcing the young lad to chase a wide one and the ball finding the bowl-sized hands of big Cameron Green in the slips cordon. Rahul’s plan to shower would’ve perhaps been unperturbed at this moment, but when both Sharma and Shreyas Iyer, in that order, were dislodged from the crease by Josh Hazlewood in the following over, he arrived with the team score on 2 runs, 3 wickets.
In a nearly silent Chepauk, Rahul watched from the other end as the pressure-master Kohli began snuffing out the early threat. Rahul’s first chance to play a ball came from the last delivery of the third over, and he followed the line of Starc’s leather and allowed it to safely pass by. The second ball he faced, now at the end of the fourth over bowled by Hazlewood, he banished it to the cover fence for four runs and the awnings above our heads vibrated— about 34,000 fans letting out their collective relief.
That was India’s first boundary of the evening, that one Rahul shot amounting to 40 per cent of the team runs until that point. While that might make the stroke sound explosive, it wasn’t. Played with the softest of hands and the deftest of touches, Rahul simply leaned into a full ball and almost just told it where to go. This kind of strokeplay, wholly shorn of violence, would go on to become the trademark of Rahul’s response to Australia’s pressure, and it made for tremendous viewing.
THE STARK DIFFERENCE betweentheirapproachesthrough the early doldrums was illustrated in Kohli’s first boundary. After four consecutive run-less balls in the sixth over, bowled by Hazlewood with his proverbial tail very much up, Kohli took a bold step down the crease and banged the casing off the ball with a shot straight down the ground. That very aggression, however, nearly pulled down the curtains on India’s hopes of gritting out a win when, with the score on 20 for three, Kohli tried to pounce on a short ball from Hazlewood into the stands. Only, the pull turned into a top edge and the ball lobbed high into the infield.
When it was dropped, by fielder Mitchell Marsh after wicketkeeper Alex Carey ran into his line of vision, Kohli and Rahul looked visibly relieved. They needed each other, this wonderfully contrasting pair of grit and beauty. Kohli has played many great 50-over World Cup knocks in the past, but despite having been among the runs in the previous World Cup in England and Wales (including a century against Sri Lanka at Leeds), this essay in Chennai will be remembered as Rahul’s pièce de resistance for now.
This essay in Chennai will be remembered as Rahul’s pièce de résistance for now. Situation and substance are two key ingredients that most often go into the production of an immortal innings. But Rahul’s had a third topping that is seldom found in today’s bang-bang era of cricket: style
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Situation and substance are two key ingredients that most often go into the production of an immortal innings. But Rahul’s had a third topping that is seldom found in today’s bang-bang era of cricket: style. This was best exemplified when leg-spinner Adam Zampa was introduced into the attack in the 18th over, with India only having started their rebuilding process at 56 for three. Zampa was going to be key to Australia’s success, given that it was India’s spin-trident of Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Kudeep Yadav who had put the brakes on Pat Cummins’ side with six wickets between them (Australia collapsed from a solid start of 119 for three).
But Rahul had other plans. In Zampa’s very first over, he was going to put on a class, a vintage one at that, on how to play spin like the old masters. The second ball he faced was a straighter one, honing into Rahul’s off-stump. But Rahul simply rocked onto his backfoot and cut the ball so very late into the acres of unmanned space behind keeper Carey. Had he missed it, he would’ve been bowled but instead he won himself a four and a whole lot of old-school fans. Zampa, never one to give up, bowled a googly off the next ball. Again, Rahul employed the late cut, this time using his feet to find an even more dexterous contact, and again he was paid with four runs and wide, disbelieving eyes.
Hurt, Zampa then went fuller with his stock-ball, the leg-spinner. But Rahul didn’t allow it to bounce even, shifting further to his left and making just enough space to pierce the infield with a most delicious inside-out cover drive. Late cuts and wristy drives on the off-side belong more to an older, quieter era of fables than today. But they will be used to describe Rahul’s folklore. As will his stroke that won India the match.
So well was Rahul timing the ball by the end that he started hitting sixes while attempting fours, one of which made him sigh sadly at his own brilliance. With only five runs for an India win and nine runs away from his hundred, Rahul had calculated that the only way to get to his personal landmark was by first hitting a four, followed by a six. With this intention, he drove at a full and wide delivery from captain Cummins in the 42nd over, but the ball simply flew from his blade for maximum runs over long-off. Match over unintentionally, Rahul instantly dropped to his haunches, slumped his chin over his bat handle, and looked bemused and thrilled at the same time, a moment befitting his future mural in wonderful Chepauk.