India rejoices as Rahul completes a flawless comeback.

KL Rahul got a century after returning from a long-term injury.

Empty or partially-empty stadiums provide a unique acoustic experience when watching cricket. If you listen carefully, the sound of bat on ball without the accompanying thrum of the crowd is sometimes an excellent sign of the caliber of the batter, the shot he/she has just performed, or even both. The broadcast systems did an excellent job of relaying a loud crack in the 35th over of India’s innings against Pakistan in the Asia Cup Super Four match. KL Rahul had slid out of his crease to play a Shadab Khan delivery, didn’t quite get to the pitch of the ball, but used his reach to wrist the ball out of sight and beyond the mid-wicket fence.

That shot, along with Rahul’s sixth ODI century, will have been music to the ears of the Indian team management, a confirmation of their patience with their original middle-order fulcrum. On May 1, the 31-year-old last played competitive cricket. He wasn’t even supposed to participate in this game, but he had to prepare on short notice as fellow injury-returnee Shreyas Iyer pulled up with a sore back. Could India truly rely on Rahul to hit his stride in a major game right away and do so with the kind of rhythm required for middle-order batting in ODIs?

Monday demonstrated why India was willing to play the dangerous 11th hour waiting game with Rahul. They’d spent much of the post-match analysis of their previous World Cup performance lamenting their failure to support a middle-order batsman long enough, and they were cautious to go the opposite way this time. And it’s understandable. Rahul has been India’s best in the middle in this format since taking on this new role in January 2020. His 1035 runs from 21 innings at an average of 64.68 and a strike-rate of 97.91, including three hundreds and seven fifties, puts him well ahead of the nearest competitor (Iyer – 797).. Rassie van der Dussen and Sanju Samson are the only two batters to have averaged higher throughout this time period, with the latter having played only 10 games.

Aside from the statistics, batting at four and five in the current 50-over game can present a variety of circumstances. You may be required to sustain the tempo after a great start, or you may have to set it yourself after consolidating an early collapse. You may come in and face spinners, quick bowlers with their tails up, or both at the same time. Rahul stepped in with a solid start and a two strike before the rain delay on Sunday. Babar Azam kept a quick bowler on the field in the hope of inducing a Pallekele-style top-order wobble under favorable conditions. Rahul, on the other hand, didn’t get bogged in his first game back, hitting two forceful pull shots in front of square, one off Shaheen Afridi and one off Haris Rauf.

When he returned today, Rauf’s injury had made Pakistan even more vulnerable in the middle overs, forcing Babar to use part-time spin to cover the overs. Rahul dispatched Iftikhar Ahmed with a six and a four. When Shadab Khan entered the attack, he greeted him with a sweep behind square for four and the aforementioned six.

It was evident why Rahul had achieved success in the middle order in this format despite numerous ventures up and down in other formats. He does well against quick bowlers, but he also does well against spinners. His shots may be traditional, but his range is extensive. Teams attempt to offset the more traditional batters by guarding boundaries down the field. Accessing areas behind square becomes critical, as Rahul did for 49 of his 111 runs.

More checkpoints were reached during the day, not least a healthy stint of wicketkeeping in the second innings. Batting in a big partnership with Virat Kohli always meant running a lot of runs between the wickets, and the 31-year-old rose to the challenge with energy to spare for the final overs on a sweltering evening in Colombo. The boundaries began to flow again after a brief pause on each side of the 40th over. He remained deep in his crease to slam a full Shaheen delivery over extra cover for four, then walked across his stumps the next ball to sweep a near yorker outside off-stump beyond short fine-leg for four more.

Rahul’s trip to this point had occurred after a somewhat stressful wait. It was a matter of two steps ahead, one step back. He’d finished therapy after thigh surgery only to experience a setback in the final phases. That means his name was marked with an asterisk on the Asia Cup squad sheet and, presumably, the World Cup roster as well. He was not available for the first round of Asia Cup games and was not slated to play the game he subsequently played. When he appeared to have a tiny start on Sunday, he was told he’d have to restart the next day due to rain.

Today, though, there was no false start. When his partner usually leaped out over the ropes, he took his time getting to the field of play. When the same duo returned at the end of the innings, it was he who took the lead and had the honor of soaking in the cheers from the partially-filled stands.