Returning KL Rahul hopes to build on fond Zimbabwe memories

India

After a near three-month layoff due to a sports hernia and Covid-19, KL Rahul is enjoying just being back in the Indian change room. Six years after he broke through in white-ball cricket in Zimbabwe, Rahul returns to the country as India’s stand-in captain. When he takes the field on Thursday, it will be only his second full series as captain.

“Firstly, I always look at myself as a player,” Rahul said on the eve of the first ODI. “I’m only a captain or leader once I cross the boundary line. We’ve played together for a long time. The same group, we’ve toured before. Even though there are a lot of youngsters, we’ve played a lot of IPL cricket together and against each other.

“There is a lot of respect for the talent everybody has, and how they’ve performed and how far they’ve come in their careers. It’s good fun. For me, I’ve been away for two months. Just to get back into the Indian dressing room and just to have that chat and laughter around the group is great.”

In the time he’s been away, Rahul has seen competition for places heat up, especially in the T20I setup. But he spoke glowingly about the team environment and how players coming back from injuries aren’t insecure about their position. Rahul said he benefitted from knowing his work over the past two years, prior to the injury, wasn’t going to be forgotten.

“It’s very important for any player,” he said, when asked about the team management’s communication. “When the selectors and captain-coach back you, it gives you so much more confidence. Your mindset is clear. You can focus on things that are necessary and things that are important: your game and skill.

“It makes it easy for a player knowing your support team is backing you and they believe you even though you’ve had a two-month gap, but they haven’t forgotten what you’ve done for the team and for the country for the last two-three years. So that gives you a lot of confidence.

“Players thrive under such situations, when you create a conformable environment and give players confidence. That is when he can go from being a good player to being a greater player who can play a lot more match-winning innings for the team.

Rahul’s last competitive game came in the May. While in rehab, he benefited from “taking the good with the bad” and being accepting of circumstances beyond his control. As he charts a comeback, Rahul is hoping to rekindle some happy memories in Harare before bigger challenges at the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup.

“My ODI and T20I debut was in Harare, I got a 100 in my first game, so I have great memories here,” he said. “Hopefully can add on to those memories. Coming back here after so many years and getting the opportunity to lead your country, obviously when you look back, it’s very pleasing. As a person you can see how much you’ve grown and how far you’ve come as a player. It gives me great joy. Hopefully, can add to those good memories and play some good cricket over the next week.”

The one thing he won’t do, though, is be someone else, even if it may be tempting enough to try and copy styles of leadership that made MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli successful across formats. “I don’t compare myself [with Dhoni or Kohli’s captaincy style],” he said. “The names you’ve mentioned, I can’t even compare myself with them as a leader because their achievements are far greater. What they’ve done for the country, I don’t think anyone else must be put in the same breath.

“I’m still young, this is just my second series as captain. Obviously, I’ve played under them, have learnt a lot from them. As players in the team, you learn from each other over the years. You learn good qualities from your fellow team-mates, and I’ve picked up good qualities from these guys.

“But my personality is such, I feel only when a captain is true to himself, it spreads to the other players. I am a calm person, so I can’t go out there and try to be someone else. I believe it’s not fair to the team or myself or to the game. I try to be myself and let the other players be themselves, express themselves as they want to. There will be no pressure on the players to be different.”

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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