On a warm summer’s afternoon an unremarkable scene plays out in a coffee shop just out of range of a long Chinnaswamy Stadium drive from Chris Gayle. Four young men are huddled around a table, dressed fashionably casually, beards, sassy spiked hair, flip-flops and tee-shirts of varying hues, sipping exotic teas. But there is something remarkable about one of those young men, KL Rahul, who has enjoyed one of the best years of his fledgling cricket career. Recovering from a shoulder injury that needed surgical intervention, Rahul is forced to cool his heels, missing the very tournament that provided the breakthrough in his career.
The break, however, has given Rahul a chance to take a step back from cricket and ponder life off the field. It’s difficult to keep cricket out of the conversation, but once he gets chatting, a bright young man with an active mind comes forth. Would he say he’s obsessed with cricket? “I love cricket. I’ve been obsessed with all sport. It’s not about watching for me. I like to go out and play,” said Rahul. “I genuinely believe that playing another sport will teach me something that will help my cricket. I’ve tried my hand at golf and tennis, I play football, I used to play basketball and volleyball in school, I still enjoy badminton and table tennis, swimming … I played whatever sport I could. It’s just helped me become more athletic.”
On the day he is relaxed enough, but switching off from the game is not always easy. “That is something I’m still learning. I have to figure that out along the way. I have gotten better in that earlier if I missed a couple of days of training I would think I was not working hard enough. I’ve realised over the last year that less is probably more, at times,” said Rahul. “It’s a hard thing for a sportsman to understand, especially someone like me who used to put in four to six hours every day. I loved to bat. In my Under-19 and Under-22 years I was obsessed with my game. Once I got in a net I never used to come out till I was forced to. I used to be at the ground six or seven hours each day. At that time it was important to put in the hours. I’ve done that when it was needed but now I’ve come to peace with the fact that rest is as important as training. It’s something I have to learn even more, when to switch off, when to push hard.”
While he enjoys his downtime just as much as the next guy, it’s not easy to get away from the pressure of performing when a Test match is on. “Nothing changes in the set life and routine that we have. From morning to evening you play, then you unwind by watching some shows, maybe chat with friends on the phone,” said Rahul. “I spend about 20-30 minutes thinking about what I need to do the next day and looking back at videos of how I batted on the day, but that’s about it. I have my meal, chat with my parents and go to bed no later than 10.”
Rahul admits that the life can be stifling at times. “I hate sitting in my hotel room. But, in India, you can’t really step out too much. Evenings are restricted to TV shows and room service. When we’re abroad it’s different. You can explore the city you’re in, walk around till you find a good restaurant or an interesting bar and chill, have a peaceful evening,” said Rahul. “But, when you’re out with the boys, you never completely forget about the game. There will be some conversation at the dinner table about what we did wrong or what we can do better, and this is good because we then don’t have to spend so much time in meeting rooms. It’s a lot more easy mentally when we’re playing abroad. You can completely switch off for at least short periods because your mind is occupied with other things.”
The other thing that can be irksome is the endless supply of unsolicited advice in a country of a billion cricket experts. “I’ve never got bogged down by what people say. Since a very early age I’ve been like this and I don’t know how that developed. I hate taking orders from people. If someone tries to do that too much I’ll end up doing the opposite thing,” said Rahul.”You get used to people giving you their opinions, you can’t change people, but you can change yourself. Only if you listen to them does it play on your mind. If you don’t go looking for these opinions on TV or social media, in papers or when you meet people, you don’t get influenced. What you don’t know can’t kill you.”
Rahul’s tattoos, his changing hairstyles and luxurious beard have been the subject of almost as much attention as his gorgeous cover drives. Once clean shaven and short haired, Rahul has now given full expression to his style. “This was always in me. Perhaps 30% of the old look was because of pressure from selectors or the association or the cricketing fraternity that this is not how we expect youngsters to be,” said Rahul. “Not being loud or brash, is something you’re told, but I’m neither of those things, despite how I may look. Yes, I like to dress well, but who doesn’t? I’ve always had an eye for fashion, and how I want to look. I’ve got my fair share of stick. But, my attitude is that this is how I am and you are nobody to have a problem with it,” said Rahul. “How I look is my business. I don’t play cricket to impress someone or earn their appreciation. I play it for myself, because I love the game. A lot of people have given me love and support, and to them I have always been a humble guy. They don’t think that stardom has gotten to my head. They still feel I’m the straight guy they knew all along. I don’t sugarcoat things to please anyone. I am now how I’ve always been, and I will always be like that. There are more haters than people who love you and support you for who you are, but that doesn’t bother me.”
At the moment, with the bat, Rahul is steadily converting the haters, one innings at a time.
(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on April 27, 2017)