Rahul, Rohit, Virat hope to get in the groove against Hong Kong

As KL Rahul strode into the practice nets at the ICC Academy — the evening sun slanting into his silhouette — an Indian support staff barked out caution to a couple of robust guards standing on either side of the sight-screen to move away. “Watch out for the ball, he will hit in your direction.” They studiously moved away and hid behind the sight-screen, but would occasionally emerge from their hiding to get a glimpse of his batting.

All their eyes met were wary leaves. The net bowler — most of India’s frontline bowlers had chosen to abstain from the optional practice session, as did Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli — would just bang the ball short outside the off-stump. A slightly frustrated Rahul would then walk up to him and instruct him to bowl straighter and probe the in-between length that has confounded him. Like against Naseem Shah, when he was unsure whether to defend or leave and did neither to a good-length ball. The belated half-defensive stroke kissed the inside edge of his bat on its way to the stumps. This was a characteristic Rahul dismissal early on in a tour or when he is returning from a lengthy lay-off, when his judgement, instincts and foot movement have not yet synchronised. “It like beginning all over again,” he had said rather ruefully a few days ago.

Understandably, he wanted to re-groove and began the nets as though he were preparing for a red-ball game, leaving balls outside the off-stump and on bounce, striding his front foot out to defend the good-length balls and shelving all the expansive pulls and drives. He was keener on getting his head position right, would ask his colleagues standing beside the nets whether his chin was in line with the elbow and front foot, if the bat-swing was coming down straight, those minute but significant facets of the game, as though he was a man determined to rediscover his best touch.

Then from nowhere, the net bowler, with a whippy action and heavy landing made the ball jag back from short of a length. Rahul, prematurely onto the front foot, was cut into half, the ball thudding onto his torso. He gestured to the bowler to keep bowling the same. Though he was not extremely quick, he made Rahul uncomfortable. A ball hit the splice of his bat, another just under the handle. But Rahul scratched and teetered through the session, like he would when facing the new ball on a seaming surface, knowing that the more time he would spend batting, the better he could get.

The guards now had emerged from the shade and begun to yawn. But Rishabh Pant injected some excitement with lusty blows either side of the practice wicket. Reverse scoops, falling sweeps, shovels and slaps, Pant produced a trailer of what he is capable of if he is recalled into the game against Hong Kong on Wednesday, a game that would, for all practical purposes, be an extended warm-up session. Runs against them would always accompany a rider — after all, the opponents were Hong Kong. But it could just be the timely gulp from a magic potion to lift morale.

The guards now were scampering for cover, hiding their faces with their hands every time he hit a ball. A couple of his leg-side swipes induced panic among the Sri Lankan cricketers practising in the adjoining nets.

Pant’s carnage woke up Rahul and as the light got dimmer and the breeze picked up, he threw caution to the wind, gliding down the track and smearing Yuzvendra Chahal over his head and into the hockey ground beyond the fence. A different avatar of Rahul emerged, the one when he is in peak T20 form, and the one he would look to recreate against Hong Kong.

Time to hit accelerator

Not just Rahul, all of India’s top three would look to cash in, put their indifferent times behind and dispel doubts that their batting is too sedate by T20 standards. Sharma and Kohli, too, are plodding through a tricky, at times intriguing, phase. Both were rusty against Pakistan. Kohli, returning to competitive cricket after 42 days, was on aggro mode from the start. But the body would not obey his mind. He attempted a lavish drive outside off-stump, the second ball of his innings. Feet crease-tied, hands thrusting at the ball, body a mile away from the ball. He ended up outside-edging the ball to second slip, a straightforward chance the fielder grassed. The storied susceptibility outside off-stump that has resurfaced in recent times, manifested again. Followed a throwback pull, but soon after he was hurried into a pull that he safely top-edged. There were glimpses of the old Kohli, but there was ample evidence of his recent struggles.

Though he would make a conscious effort to lift the tempo of scoring, timing did not quite ally with him, as it had been this entire year. For much of his century-less months, Kohli had not looked particularly out of touch, but this year has been a struggle, especially with his timing.

Like the way he perished against Mohammad Nawaz. Kohli did most things right – the choice of stroke could not be faulted as the ball was nicely floated in and pleading to be despatched over the ropes, he was right to the pitch of the ball, hit with the turn. But the timing went asunder. Often when he takes the aerial route, the trajectory is flat but this time there was elevation but not the distance, the ball taking off the upper half of his bat.

Sharma’s travails had been different. He seemed to have put a scratchy IPL behind in the West Indies. There was an urgency to accelerate the pace of scoring – the criticism that the top three are sedate by modern-day T20 yardstick still lingers and he has put in a deliberate effort to infuse impetus at the top. In his last eight innings, he has managed a 145-plus strike rate on five instances. But against Pakistan, he was ponderous, much like he was in the IPL, his innings replete with uncertain stabs, gropes, plays-and-misses, and feeble drives straight to the fielders. He tried to grind his way out of the torment, but even that did not work chiefly because he is not a natural rotator of strike. The gift of Kohli is that even if he is in poor touch, he can tap the singles and chug along. But Sharma, unless he gets his sumptuous strokes going, could get stuck at one end.

There is little doubt the three have the game, motivation and the wherewithal to rediscover their best form and emerge as a devastating trio in time for the business end of the Asia Cup and later the T20 World Cup. The Hong Kong encounter could be the perfect base-point for their ascent to batting peak.

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